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In the midst of a deadly pandemic, with millions losing jobs and health benefits, Congress has yet to pass a new stimulus package, exposing the extent to which workers are regarded as lazy and undeserving of benefits by powerful policy makers. The need for time off with pay, even for many so-called essential workers, is routinely dismissed with more than 100 million workers omitted from federal coverage. America’s orientation toward labor is intricately tied to notions of race and class, dating back to its founding.

In 1735, the colony of the Province of Georgia initially outlawed slavery and it was resisted by settlers who felt it would make work seem degrading. At the same time, it was illegal to hire any Black person since slavery was already thriving in South Carolina. Fast forward 200 years, and agricultural laborers and domestic servants, then 60% of Black labor, were excluded from old-age social security benefits. The prevailing belief that public welfare benefits are a disincentive to work is at least a century old. The desire on the part of owners to maximize profits by minimizing labor costs drives strong resistance to providing any form of pay in the absence of work. This mentality reverberates throughout society, negatively impacting almost all workers.

A new campaign, Paid Leave for All, reports that “only 19% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through an employer.” According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “62% of Black adults and 73% of Latinx adults are either ineligible or cannot afford to take unpaid leave … most likely because they cannot afford to lose pay or risk losing their job.”

Why is it that society expects the lowest paid, and arguably hardest working, employees to toil without the benefit of paid leave should they need to take time off to attend to the health and welfare of their family?

The CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine when anyone is within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more. In the absence of paid leave, the need to quarantine is weighed against the need to sustain one’s household. In the event of infection with the virus, an individual should go into isolation. If one person infects two people, and they infect two and so on, it would result in exponential rates of infection. Paid leave is essential to bend the coronavirus curve and defeat the virus.

For some low-wage workers, an additional $600 per work was a significant bonus. However, if the worker refused to return to work when recalled, that worker became ineligible to receive unemployment and additional stimulus payments. Opposition to the $600 payment is clearly based upon a belief that the worker cannot deserve more than the low wage previously accepted. Essential workers take care of patients in nursing homes, stock shelves and make deliveries so that everyone else can shelter safely at home. Those on the frontline are disproportionately people of color, women and low-wage workers.

Leaving one class of workers out of benefits taken for granted by so many others is a function of a mean-spirited, short-sighted, racially biased opinion of labor deeply entrenched, especially in the south. There is no rational justification for omitting any segment of the workforce from a benefit essential to family security. It is time for all workers to be treated with respect. Providing paid leave for all workers affirms the dignity of work and our shared humanity.