Blog | Economic Policy Institute Research and Ideas for Shared Prosperity Fri, 17 Apr 2020 22:07:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How Southern state policymakers can strengthen democracy and protect voter health during the coronavirus pandemic Fri, 17 Apr 2020 18:49:16 +0000 This is the final installment of a three-part series examining the economic and social conditions that impact health outcomes in Southern states, and how these conditions leave communities underprepared to protect front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the earlier pieces of this three-part series, we described what actions are especially needed in Southern states to protect public health and front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we highlight action that is also needed in the South to address the threats the coronavirus poses to participation in our democracy at the expense of voter and poll worker health. The country witnessed this most recently during the Wisconsin presidential primary election last week. As we describe below, Southern states already face significant challenges to democratic participation. The coronavirus pandemic further heightens the need around the country and especially in the South to address longstanding barriers to free and fair elections, an accurate count for the once-a-decade census, and a legislative process that is accountable to the communities elected officials represent.

Free and fair elections and healthy voters

Today, voter suppression, which disproportionately impacts black and brown people, comes in the form of enforcing strict voter identification laws, disenfranchising people with felony convictions, purging registered voters from voter lists, closing polling locations, and failing to provide required language assistance. In Southern states, these barriers are layered on top of the legacy of Jim Crow, which as our colleague Jhacova Williams demonstrates in her research, continues to stifle rates of black voter registration today.

The coronavirus pandemic creates additional barriers, asking voters to choose between protecting their health and their right to participate in our democracy and compromising the health and safety of poll workers during presidential primary as well as state and local elections. Today, progress for fair and accessible election reforms remains mixed. In Kentucky, the legislature overrode a veto by the governor to create a new voter identification law at the worst possible time. On the other hand, Virginia policymakers have enacted the kinds of voting reforms necessary to strengthen democracy in the wake of the crisis.Virginia’s governor recently signed multiple bills that expanded early voting, repealed voter identification laws, made election day a holiday, expanded absentee voting, and implemented automatic voter registration.

Southern state policymakers and election officials have taken some useful steps to protect public health and limit the spread of the coronavirus by postponing elections. For example, though most states in the South have already had their presidential primary elections, officials in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia delayed theirs until June. The North Carolina Board of Elections and Mississippi Governor Reeves postponed congressional runoff elections, and other officials in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas?postponed local elections. In Oklahoma, the secretary of state will identify a new deadline for collecting ballot initiative signatures once the governor indicates that the state’s emergency declaration is over.

There are steps governors, legislators, election boards, and secretaries of state can take to increase voter participation and keep communities safe, especially while social distancing guidelines are still in place. Where voting in person is the only option available, expanding early voting periods, increasing the number of polling locations to prevent crowding, providing personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies for voters and poll workers, and adjusting polling locations—for example, those located at senior centers—to protect the health of people with underlying health conditions are all critical.

Much more can be done apart from delaying elections or maintaining in-person voting when social distancing is necessary and more action in the South is needed. While none of the five states that exclusively vote by mail are in the South, policymakers or election officials may have the authority to allow voting by mail or to allow voters to submit absentee ballots without requiring an excuse. Prior to COVID-19, among Southern states, only Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma permitted “no-excuse” absentee voting. This year, with the onset of the coronavirus, the secretary of state offices in Georgia will automatically mail registered voters their absentee mail-in ballot without requiring voters to request an absentee ballot in advance online. Alabama and West Virginia will temporarily allow absentee voting for voters who request an absentee ballot online. Virginia will do the same for elections this summer, and lawmakers in Virginia recently passed no-excuse absentee voting legislation in time for November elections. It is not yet clear if all the states with only temporary no-excuse absentee voting will continue this practice into the fall, and some efforts to allow no-excuse absentee voting in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas have already been stymied.

Additionally, voter registration policies must meet the needs of all eligible voters during this public health crisis, allowing for flexibility in the form of same-day registration and extended deadlines. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, same-day registration policies allow voters to register to vote and cast their ballot in the same day. However, no states in the South have same-day voter registration policies, apart from North Carolina, which allows voters to register in the same day during part of the early voting period, but not on election day. Most Southern states do allow voters to register online. Exceptions include Arkansas as well as Oklahoma, where election officials are gradually implementing online voter registration in phases. These online voting registration systems must be prepared to accommodate greater traffic and must be properly linked with automatic voter registration systems already in place.

These reforms are needed for fair and accessible elections always, not just in times of crisis, and all the steps above will require extensive public education to make sure that communities know their rights. Any changes to voting options and new rules must be widely disseminated and publicized and should also meet the language needs of different communities.

An accurate count for the 2020 census supports healthy communities

The 2020 census is underway. This once-a-decade population count is used to determine political representation by deciding the number of seats each state will have in the House of Representatives and paving the way for adjustments to congressional and state legislative districts based on population changes. The 2020 census will also determine the allocation of more than $800 billion of federal resources for disaster recovery, housing, food assistance, Head Start, and more.

Historically, it’s been a challenge for the census to get an accurate count among low-income communities, in particular communities of color, and households with young children. These challenges combine to make the broad swaths of the South particularly hard to count, which has borne out in the data so far. The coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate these difficulties. The challenges for getting an accurate count during the pandemic have already led the Census Bureau to ask Congress for a four-month delay in delivering required data. In the wake of these challenges, policymakers and public officials in Southern states must step up their public education efforts and encourage residents to participate in the 2020 census by mail, phone, and online.

During the crisis, the legislative process must be accountable to constituents

Many Southern legislatures have suspended their sessions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Louisiana has even done so indefinitely. But closing doors or rushing votes is not an effective way to provide governance during a public health crisis. The crisis will create numerous legislative demands, including everything from public health needs to providing emergency assistance to impacted constituents, businesses, and front-line workers, and dealing with the sizable fiscal crunch to come. For example, the Oklahoma legislature, which had not met since March 17, was called into special session by the governor to deal with necessary legislation related to the crisis.

Some legislatures, such as Oklahoma and Kentucky, are experimenting with various way to still engage in-person voting either by proxy voting or by limiting how many lawmakers can vote at a time. These are good steps in a pinch, but not enough. Legislatures must both be available for constituent needs during this crisis and stay safe doing so. This means that state legislatures need to quickly adopt measures to allow for meeting and voting remotely. Legislatures should also maintain accountability and transparency for their constituents, by posting timely and useful information online and livestreaming their remote sessions to ensure deliberations remain in public. To hold private briefings and other meetings, legislatures should also experiment with more secure systems.


The COVID-19 pandemic will create serious challenges for maintaining a healthy democracy in a region with a long and deadly history of voter suppression. In the earlier installments of this three-part series we also described how the social and economic conditions of Southern states leave the region particularly vulnerable and underprepared to protect front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of public investments in health resources, from the absence of paid leave policies to the decision by many state policymakers to refuse the Medicaid expansion from the Affordable Care Act, has left Southerners particularly vulnerable to the health crisis. In an economic crisis that will hit low-wage workers first and hardest, the South has higher rates of poverty, unaided by low-paying jobs and lower rates of unionization. It is therefore unsurprising that despite overly stringent Unemployment Insurance (UI) systems, seven of the 10 states with the highest percent change in UI claims relative to the pre-virus period are in the South. Each of these problems is deeply troubling, but we’ve also detailed plenty of solutions: implement paid leave policies, expand Medicaid, expand and bolster UI systems, increase aid to social services and income support programs, expand voting and voter registration options, maintain an accountable legislature throughout the crisis, and pay particular attention to the needs of front-line workers and vulnerable communities. Southern state policymakers and elected officials must step up to the scale of the crisis they face.

Access to online learning amid coronavirus is far from universal, and children who are poor suffer from a digital divide Fri, 17 Apr 2020 15:25:42 +0000 In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, parents, school districts, and communities are doing their best to replace in-person with online learning. But as a recent Washington Post article notes, the move to e-learning prompted by school closures has “exposed the technology divides”—with K–12 students who lack the resources they now need to learn at home facing long-term academic disadvantages.

Although the Post article focused on the digital divide in the District of Columbia, this is a national problem.

EPI analysis of data from the most comprehensive study of primary and secondary education in the country illustrates a widespread digital divide based on family income. The data, from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for eighth-graders, show that full access to online learning is far from universal and that students who are poor are less likely to have access to the key tools and experiences they need to attend school online. For example, nearly 16% of eighth-graders overall, and almost a quarter of eighth-graders who are poor, don’t have a desktop or laptop computer at home on which to follow their classes. About 8% of eighth-graders who are not poor lack access to these essential devices. The data also show that low shares of students have teachers with full technological proficiency to teach online. (Poor students are defined as students who are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.)

As the figure shows, about one in four eighth-graders who are poor do not have a desktop computer or laptop (23.7%), and almost one in three (29.4%) do not have a tablet—which are essential if students are to be able to follow instruction online. Indeed, 7.0% of eighth-graders who are poor do not have home internet, the other essential instrument for remote study. In contrast, only 7.7% of non-poor students lack a desktop or laptop computer, and only a tiny fraction of non-poor students (1.6%) are without internet access. (It’s important to note that the survey questions do not ask about the quality or coverage of the internet access, or the number of computers in the house. Devices once available for homework may now be shared with siblings or be used by parents for work.) In sum, for eighth-graders overall, the data show broad but uneven access to the internet, and also demonstrate that a sizeable minority, 15.6%, don’t have the essential hardware they need to learn online.

Another challenge that the data spotlight is that eighth-graders are not as accustomed to using the internet for homework at home as one might expect. Roughly half report they do not frequently use the internet at home to do their homework. This lack of habit could be a real obstacle as schools ramp up online instruction because it means that students (and parents) are ill-prepared to deal with the glitches and more substantive problems that will likely arise. In addition, the share of students who are poor who report experience using the home internet frequently for homework is roughly 10 percentage points lower than the share among their non-poor counterparts (46.4% versus 56.1%).

Just about a third of eighth-graders overall have teachers who consider themselves proficient in using software applications, and only a fifth have teachers who consider themselves proficient in integrating computers into instruction. The shares of students with teachers who don’t consider themselves proficient but have received some training in applications and computer use in instruction are higher. Yet that still leaves nearly a quarter (24.1%) of eighth-graders with teachers who are neither proficient in nor trained in software applications, and close to one in eight (11.5%) with teachers who are neither proficient in nor trained in how to integrate computers into instruction.

Teachers, parents, districts, and communities are doing their best, under extremely difficult circumstances, to expand access to devices and revamp operations so that children lose as little as possible in terms of not just valuable learning time, but also school-based supports like meals, health clinics, and counseling. The hardships they are facing are widespread, and educators and administrators are trying to mitigate the pain during this crisis.

As we adjust, policymakers should be wary of the assumption that all children, or even most children, are learning online in a meaningful way because it is not a reality. And the lack of remote learning for many due to the digital divide is just a small tip of the iceberg of factors impeding a sound education for all of our students during this time. Once school buildings reopen, we must make large and targeted investments in strategies to address the consequences of the current challenges and lift up all students going forward.

A coronavirus recovery: How to ensure older workers fully participate Thu, 16 Apr 2020 21:28:18 +0000

Key takeaways:

  • Because older workers are more likely to be unemployed for long periods, have work-limiting disabilities, and live in areas of the country that were struggling even before the crisis, policies aimed at addressing these problems will especially benefit these workers.
  • While infrastructure spending could help jump-start the post-pandemic recovery, policies must ensure that older workers participate in training and jobs programs related to these investments.
  • Regulatory protections for front-line workers, especially older workers and others at heightened risk for contracting or suffering serious consequences from contagious diseases, need to be strengthened and updated using lessons learned from the pandemic.
  • Employer-provided benefits result in spotty coverage and higher costs for older workers. The United States should catch up to other countries and provide sick leave, paid family leave, and health insurance through government programs rather than leaving these to the discretion of employers.

(See the companion blog post outlining steps needed to protect vulnerable older workers in the economic collapse caused by measures needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Once the worst of the outbreak is over and social distancing measures are relaxed, policies to help older workers will be needed to ensure they share in the recovery.

Deficit-financed stimulus spending—needed to quickly bring the economy back to something approaching full employment—will help but not ensure broad-based prosperity. Policymakers also need to address power imbalances between employers and workers and target policies at disadvantaged workers, including unemployed older workers.

Older workers, as I discussed in?my last blog post, may find it harder to get back in the job market after layoffs for a number of reasons. They may have health conditions that limit what they can do or they may feel forced to accept large pay cuts because some skills and knowledge they’ve built up aren’t transferable and may be undervalued by prospective employers. Absent policies to help these workers regain their footing, they may become “discouraged workers” who give up on the job search and retire before they’re ready to.

This post lays out a series of policies to address barriers to employment for unemployed older workers and to protect older workers from health and financial risks.

Consider policies to encourage employers to hire long-term unemployed workers

Older workers who lose their jobs in a recession are more likely to be unemployed for long periods. For example, a study of unemployed workers in the Great Recession found that only a third (34%) of adults ages 62 and older who lost jobs were reemployed within 12 months and only two-fifths (41%) were reemployed within 18 months. On average, an older worker’s chance of reemployment each month was about half that of the average worker age 25 to 34.

Policies to encourage employers to hire long-term-unemployed workers must be carefully assessed to gauge their effectiveness and minimize the negative impact on other workers. For example, enacting the Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act would provide time-limited funding to local workforce development boards and community-based organizations to employ workers who have been unemployed for six months or more, along with providing other employment supports. Importantly, it includes provisions to discourage employers from displacing existing workers or rotating eligible workers through the program.

Currently, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides a targeted employment subsidy worth up to $6,000 for one year to employers who hire workers who receive government benefits, are disabled veterans, were previously incarcerated, participate in Vocational Rehabilitation programs, or are long-term unemployed.

Ensure older workers have a role in infrastructure projects

Low interest rates, unmet needs, and bipartisan support make it likely that infrastructure spending will play a role in stimulating the post-pandemic recovery. A?Green New Deal and other infrastructure measures could help jump-start the economy and address the even bigger threat to human life and the global economy posed by global warming. However, we need to ensure that workers of all ages are trained and employed for this work. As a quick start, boosting transit funding, especially for buses and accessible transportation, could have multiple benefits for older workers, who are more likely than younger workers to be employed in the transportation sector. (Unless otherwise noted, all references to older workers’ employment shares are based on the author’s analysis of 2015–2017 American Community Survey microdata for workers ages 55–64.)

Another low-tech but effective way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is rehabbing older housing to make it more energy efficient. Barriers to making these ultimately cost-saving investments, especially for low-income and elderly homeowners, include upfront costs, lack of information, and an understandable reluctance to have a work crew in one’s home. Though construction projects tend to favor younger workers, outreach efforts to overcome these barriers in communities where declining industries have left behind an aging workforce and a dilapidated housing stock could employ many lower-income older workers.

Other forms of job training and public investment, such as universal pre-K, should also take older workers into account. Many older workers currently work as teachers’ aides, and more could be trained to work in preschools.

Better target aid to hard-hit regions

More effective and better-targeted regional economic policies would also benefit older workers, who are more likely to be employed in declining industries and live in economically depressed areas. Unemployed older workers are often less able to relocate to find work because of family commitments and community ties. Homeowners in depressed areas may also have difficulty relocating if the value of their home has declined relative to the outstanding balance on their mortgage. Eligibility for some benefits, such as extended Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance benefits, is partly based on regional economic indicators. These benefits are well targeted and should be expanded. However, the Opportunity Zones tax break enacted in 2017 with the stated goal of encouraging investment in low-income areas mainly benefits wealthy investors and contributes to gentrification.

Expand EITC benefits for workers without dependent children

Another overdue policy reform that could help older workers in the recovery is expanding eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC in its current form depresses the earnings of older workers competing for the same jobs as workers with dependent children who are the main beneficiaries of the program, because supplementing the incomes of some low-paid workers allows their employers to pay lower wages. We should expand EITC eligibility and benefits for workers without dependent children, while increasing the minimum wage to offset the implicit subsidy the EITC provides to low-wage employers.

We should also consider expanding and promoting the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provides temporary subsidies for training and employing low-income older workers. This program appears to have at least modest success at promoting longer-term employment.

Institute fair-hiring policies for formerly incarcerated people reentering the labor market

Among those workers who will face the greatest hurdles to employment are formerly incarcerated older Americans. Some states and counties have suspended bail and released prisoners early in response to the pandemic, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr has announced that more federal prisoners will be eligible for home confinement. These initiatives urgently need to be replicated around the country, especially for older prisoners who pose no threat to society. However, formerly incarcerated people reentering the labor market, whether on schedule or early, are doing so at the worst possible time. In addition to ensuring that economic stimulus measures are timely and sufficient to restore a tight labor market, we should promote fair hiring for people with arrest or conviction records.

Enhance use and enforcement of federal worker safety protections

The pandemic has laid bare the weakness of worker health and safety protections in the United States. Under the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to use even the weak powers at its disposal, let alone instituted an Emergency Temporary Standard for Infectious Disease to protect front-line workers in the pandemic. Protections for older workers, whistleblowers, and others at heightened risk need to be strengthened and updated to take into account lessons learned from the pandemic.

Protect and expand disability insurance and other social insurance programs

The vulnerability of older workers with underlying conditions in the COVID-19 pandemic should also serve as a caution against reforms aimed at moving beneficiaries off disability rolls and into the workforce, as the Trump administration proposed in its 2021 budget (though how the administration intended to accomplish this was unclear). Reforms to move people off of disability rolls are especially ill-advised in a weak labor market. Instead, we should increase access to benefits while expanding supports for workers with disabilities who are able to remain in the workforce.

Strict eligibility standards and a lengthy and complicated application and appeals process make it difficult for workers to access Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Though SSDI applications are likely to rise sharply as more workers with disabilities lose their jobs, acceptance rates typically drop in recessions due to an increase in marginal applicants. Applicants with less education, language barriers, and transportation challenges are especially disadvantaged by the complicated application and appeals process. These barriers to access have only increased in recent years, contributing to a sharp drop in take-up over the past decade.

Many older workers with disabilities don’t even bother trying to apply for SSDI and simply apply for reduced Social Security retirement benefits at the early eligibility age of 62. This is disadvantageous, since disability benefits at any age are based on retirement benefits at the normal retirement age (currently 66), not benefits reduced for early retirement. Importantly, disabled workers who may be eligible for either type of benefit and can’t afford to wait to see if their disability application is accepted should apply for both disability and retirement benefits simultaneously. Beneficiaries who weren’t aware of this option or who developed a disability after applying for retirement benefits can still apply for disability benefits after the fact. The permanent closing of some Social Security offices and temporary closing of all offices during the pandemic make it less likely that applicants will be made aware of this option or of the potential financial advantage of delaying take-up of retirement benefits.

Some economists and policymakers are concerned that disability benefits may reduce labor force participation. However, expanding government supports for workers who remain in the workforce and removing obstacles to accessing benefits can encourage employers to hire older workers by reducing employer costs associated with accommodating workers with disabilities and by helping workers who develop health conditions that interfere with work exit the workforce. Even if improving access to benefits has a net negative effect on labor force participation, disability insurance is generally welfare-improving because it helps relatively healthy people who want to work find jobs while forcing fewer people in poor health to try to keep working.

Generally speaking, expanding social insurance programs like SSDI will tend to promote the hiring of older workers. The United States is unusual among advanced economies in its reliance on employers to provide health benefits and paid leave. Older workers are more expensive to insure and more likely to take short-term disability leave due to cancer and other illnesses associated with age, though younger workers take more time off for injuries, mental illness, and family caregiving. Social insurance such as Medicare for All and paid family leave would remove the cost of health care and paid leave from employer hiring decisions as well as shield older workers from high out-of-pocket costs.

Social insurance has many potential advantages over employer-provided benefits, including spreading costs over lifetimes, pooling risk widely, reducing incentives to deny coverage or care, and taking advantage of economies of scale and government bargaining power to restrain costs. If there is not the political will for large-scale expansions of social insurance such as Medicare for All in the aftermath of the pandemic, policymakers could take more incremental approaches, such as creating a public option or Medicare buy-in, to leave less of workers’ coverage to the discretion of employers and to minimize potential disincentives to hiring older workers.

Expand Social Security to forestall a looming retirement crisis

Even in a best-case scenario, the recession will likely result in more workers retiring earlier than planned. We should expand Social Security benefits and revenue to forestall a looming retirement crisis caused by the decline of secure employer pensions in favor of do-it-yourself 401(k) plans, among other factors. It’s worth noting that Social Security and traditional pensions act as automatic stabilizers when the economy is operating below capacity due to a decline in overall spending. Social Security and traditional pensions allow workers to retire regardless of economic conditions and inject needed funds into the economy. In contrast, 401(k)-style plans tend to exacerbate business-cycle gyrations.

Updated state unemployment numbers remain astonishingly high: Six states saw record-high levels of initial unemployment claims last week Thu, 16 Apr 2020 17:28:55 +0000 This morning, the Department of Labor released the latest initial unemployment insurance (UI) claims data, showing that another five million people (not seasonally adjusted) filed for UI last week. In the last four weeks, more than 20 million workers—whose economic security has been upended by the coronavirus crisis and inadequate policy responses—filed for UI.

Last week, Colorado, New York, South Carolina, Connecticut, Mississippi, and West Virginia saw their highest level of initial UI claim filings ever. These six states, along with Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina, saw increases in initial filings compared with the prior week.

Most states had fewer initial UI claims last week than in the week prior, but the number of UI claims remained astonishingly high. California and Michigan—the two states with the largest decline since the week before—still had 661,000 and 219,000 claims filed last week, respectively—the third-highest week on record for both.

Figure A compares UI claims filed last week with filings in the pre-virus period, showing once again that Southern states are faring particularly poorly. Seven of the 10 states that had the highest percent change last week relative to the pre-virus period are Southern: Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Alabama.

Figure A
Figure A

Table 1 shows the data displayed in the map as well as the change in UI claims over the last five weeks relative to the same five-week period a year ago.

These UI claims represent a devastating loss of income and security for workers and their families and also have exacerbated existing inequalities. Women have been overrepresented in the number of job losses so far. The leisure and hospitality sector, which has laid off the most workers, disproportionately employs immigrants and people of color.

The staggering number of claims has also placed an enormous amount of strain on the agencies tasked with administering these benefits. Federal funding is needed to support these agencies and states must leverage existing laws to get aid to workers quickly.

For 9.2 million workers in the last four weeks, losing their job also meant losing their employer-provided health insurance. The federal government should expand Medicare and Medicaid to these workers so that they are able to seek care during the pandemic, should they need it. The United States could also follow the lead of other countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, by undertaking other transformative measures to guarantee paychecks to all workers. At a minimum, policymakers must address gaps in the existing coronavirus relief and recovery measures, including insufficient aid to state and local governments, in a fourth package.

Table 1
Table 1
9.2 million workers likely lost their employer-provided health insurance in the past four weeks Thu, 16 Apr 2020 14:17:53 +0000 We estimate that 9.2 million workers were at high risk of losing their employer-provided health insurance in the past four weeks. To avoid prohibitively costly insurance options, the federal government should fund an expansion of Medicare and Medicaid to all those suffering job losses during the pandemic period.

Two weeks ago, when the two-week total of unemployment insurance (UI) initial claims was 8.7 million, we estimated that 3.5 million workers may have lost their health insurance at work. Since then, 11.4 million more workers filed claims for unemployment benefits, bringing the total of UI initial claims over the last four weeks to 20.1 million, currently the most comprehensive measure of the extent of job losses and furloughs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We estimate that across all industries where workers have filed UI claims, about 45.7% of workers had their own health insurance provided through their employer. As a result, of the 20.1 million workers who filed initial UI claims in the last four weeks, 9.2 million may have lost coverage through their own employer-provided health insurance (EPHI).

The analysis, described below, combines industry-specific UI claims data for 11 states, representing about 20% of national employment, with national, industry-specific health insurance coverage rates. Using these data, we provide a rough prediction of 9.2 million workers losing EPHI. We can’t say exactly how many people will lose insurance coverage altogether for several reasons. For example, some workers who lose EPHI due to layoffs or hours reductions that trigger UI claims may be able to obtain coverage through health care exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or through Medicaid. Some of this group may also be able to obtain continuing coverage through COBRA, paying out of pocket the full cost of their EPHI coverage. Some workers may be able to obtain coverage through other family members, or if only experiencing a temporary furlough or hours reduction, their employers might continue to pay for coverage. On the other hand, our calculations might understate the loss of health insurance coverage because they do not account for family members who are no longer covered because of the policyholder’s layoff. And, because not all layoffs result in UI claims, we will underestimate the actual magnitude of job losses.

Because the United States is unique among rich countries in tying health insurance benefits to employment, many of the newly unemployed will suddenly face prohibitively costly insurance options. A comprehensive policy solution would be to extend Medicare and Medicaid to all those suffering job losses during the pandemic period, with the federal government funding this expansion. Current discussions suggest there may be legislation that the federal government pay for all of COBRA coverage so that workers who are laid off or furloughed may continue their employer-provided coverage. While this policy proposal will help many workers continue coverage, in some states it will not help workers from small businesses with fewer than 20 employees, who are not eligible for COBRA.

The linkage between specific jobs and the availability of health insurance is a prime source of inefficiency and inequity in the U.S. health system. It is especially terrifying for workers to lose their health insurance as a result of, and during, an ongoing pandemic.


Our methodology builds on our previous work, which extrapolated from industry-level statistics published by Washington state. In this updated analysis, we instead use recently collected industry-level UI claims data from 11 states. From these states’ data, we calculate the average industry-specific shock as the number of UI claims as a share of 2019Q3 employment from the QCEW. We apply this industry-specific job loss share to all the other states’ industry-specific employment totals, and then we proportionally scale these losses so that each state’s total job loss equals its statewide not-seasonally-adjusted total initial UI claims for the four weeks ending March 21 through April 11. The estimates in the first column of Table 1 are the sum of these industry- and state-specific job losses.

Table 1
Table 1

The second column provides national industry-specific shares of employer-provided health insurance coverage rates using data from the 2018 March Current Population Survey, limiting the sample to those who worked in the private sector or in government during the previous year. Multiplying the first and second column is our estimate of EPHI job losses: the number of layoffs or furloughs in which, on average, workers will be at risk of losing their own employer-based health insurance. Finally, the fourth column expresses the total job loss estimate as a share of 2019Q3 industry-specific employment.

Figure A uses the same methodology but provides state-specific estimates of these job losses.

We should note that other analysis?has shown that it is difficult to draw reliable inferences from the industry composition of UI claims. In the case of EPHI, we don’t yet have independent direct data sources on coverage to provide a check for the industry-based estimates in this post. As these sources become available, we will use them to check or supplement these estimates.

Figure A
Figure A
Women have been hit hard by the coronavirus labor market: Their story is worse than industry-based data suggest Wed, 15 Apr 2020 22:12:25 +0000

Key findings:

  • The latest payroll employment data for March show that women were the hardest hit by initial job losses in the COVID-19 labor market; women represented 50.0% of payroll employment in February, but represented 58.8% of job losses in March.
  • If women’s share of new unemployment insurance (UI) claims in recent weeks was driven solely by sector-level differences in gender composition, then they would have accounted for roughly 45% of new UI claims, or about 6.8 million new claims.
  • However, relying solely on the gender composition of sectoral unemployment may lead to an underestimate of new UI claims that were filed by women. Using three states that provide direct estimates of the gender composition of new UI claims shows that the female share of these claims is substantially higher than what we estimate by using only the sectoral composition of employment by gender.
  • We estimate that once the overrepresentation of women in sectors with new layoffs is corrected for, between 7.8 and 8.4 million women filed for unemployment insurance in the three weeks ending April 4.

Since March 15, 15.1 million workers in the United States have filed for unemployment insurance. Tomorrow, the latest initial unemployment insurance claims will be released by the Department of Labor for the week ending April 11, and estimates suggest that there could be another 4.5 million initial claims reported. These top-line numbers are vital for understanding what is going on in the economy and the extent of the economic insecurity millions of workers and their families are experiencing. But what is less clear is who these workers are and where they work. While national statistics that directly report the demographic characteristics of UI claimants will not be available for months, we use national employment data from March and preliminary state UI reports through April to begin to answer those questions. We find that job losses and furloughs have disproportionately affected women. This is the result of two factors: Women are more concentrated in sectors that experienced more job loss, and women also tended to see more job loss than men within these sectors.

We begin by using the Current Employment Statistics to examine initial job losses by sector and gender. Next we use UI claims data from selected states to estimate the share of UI claims filed by women. Eleven states, which represent about 20% of the U.S. workforce, have reported valuable sector-level data on their unemployment insurance claims. We pair this with gender-, state-, and sector-level data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) to estimate the number of women who likely filed initial unemployment insurance claims since March 15. In conducting our study, we found that women are likely overrepresented in initial job losses as compared with results from the three states with reported gender-specific UI claims data. This overrepresentation could be due to the types of jobs women hold within each sector—partially the result of occupation segregation—or it could be due to other phenomena (for instance, labor market discrimination) that have led to disproportionate shares of women being in jobs within each sector that are more subject to job loss. Either way, it is clear that using sector-level data to estimate the number of women who filed unemployment insurance claims in the last three weeks underestimates the actual number of women experiencing job loss and filing for unemployment.

Let’s start with the latest Employment Situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, providing data for just the beginning of the COVID-19 job market losses. The data for March represented the payroll period including March 12, before the first spike in initial unemployment insurance claims. Payroll employment still fell by 701,000 jobs in March. Using February 2020 as a benchmark, Table 1 shows job shares by gender as well as job losses that occurred in March by gender for selected sectors. While jobs filled by women represent 50.0% of payroll employment in February, jobs held by women represented 58.8% of job losses in March. The vast majority of the job losses occurred in leisure and hospitality, with a loss of 459,000 jobs. In this sector, jobs held by women represented 53.3% of overall employment and 56.9% of job losses. Disproportionate job losses were found in nearly all the largest sectors that experienced significant job losses in March. Women were overrepresented in job losses experienced in retail trade and professional and business services. In education and health services, jobs held by men actually increased in March, while jobs held by women fell by 86,000.

Table 1
Table 1

Overall, the establishment-level data show that women were overrepresented in job losses, at least in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 labor market.

Now, let’s turn to the state-level unemployment insurance claims data available. Eleven states, which represent about 20% of the U.S. workforce, have reported valuable sector-level data on their unemployment insurance claims, and three states—Minnesota, North Dakota, and Nevada—have released gender-specific breakdowns of initial UI claims. Using these data, we estimate that women likely filed more UI claims than men, especially during the earlier weeks of the pandemic. This is the result of two factors—women are more concentrated in sectors that saw more job loss, and women also tended to see more job loss than men within sectors.

The first column in Table 2 shows that most UI initial claims in Minnesota were filed by women, with women filing larger shares of claims in the early weeks of the pandemic. The second column of Table 2 shows what share of UI claims one would expect should come from women, using a prediction of industry-specific job losses and assuming industry-specific UI claims are distributed according to the share of women who work in those sectors.1 What is immediately apparent upon comparison is that our estimate based solely on the sectors impacted significantly understates the number of women who filed for unemployment insurance in Minnesota. The pattern holds for North Dakota and Nevada, the two other states that published gender-specific UI data.

This suggests that any estimate based on shares of women in each sector may undercount the number of women who filed for unemployment insurance in the last four weeks. Recall that the establishment survey suggested that 58.8% of job losses were among jobs held by women, and disproportionately even within each sector. The outsized job losses among women weren’t simply because of the overall sectors where job losses occurred, but the occupations or particular jobs within those sectors were skewed toward more losses among women workers. The results below affirm those findings and suggest that using sector-level data from each state alone underreports gender losses by 11% to 24% depending on the state or specific week. Also, in all three states, the data suggest that women make up a slightly higher share of all initial claimants. In Minnesota and North Dakota, it appears that the share of initial claims by women for the week ending March 21 was higher than in subsequent weeks, supporting the prior findings from the establishment survey that women made up a larger share of initial job losses.

Table 2
Table 2

Using what we’ve learned from these comparisons, we now turn to our estimates of unemployment insurance claims for women nationally and across states. We sum our state- and sector-specific claims predictions across all states to get our initial estimate for the share and number of women filing for UI claims as shown in the first two rows of Table 3. Next, we use the fact that sector-specific predictions underreport actual gender shares of UI claims in the three states for which we have data, as discussed re Table 2 above. The underreporting ranges from 6.9 to 10.5 percentage points. We use this range to provide lower- and upper-bound estimates of the share and level of women filing UI claims since March 15. According to our analysis, women represent 52.2% to 55.8% of overall claims and 7.8 to 8.4 million claimants.

Women may continue to be overrepresented among claimants, more so than their sector averages would suggest. This may be true for the reasons already stated—women hold jobs within sectors that may be materially different from the jobs men hold. For instance, if women are less likely to be managers within an establishment and all but the high-level managers are laid off, women will be more likely to be laid off. In addition, the CARES Act greatly expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance, including provisions to allow workers to claim benefits if workers had to leave for a variety of reasons related to COVID-19 or state-level social distancing requirements. Workers are eligible for UI because of caregiving responsibilities, that is, they can receive benefits if they need to quit to care for a child whose child care or school is closed. Considering caregiving responsibilities are often disproportionately borne by women, this could mean that they continue to shoulder greater job losses and a larger share of unemployment insurance claims.

We will continue to examine the data as it becomes available and analyze as many demographic characteristics as possible to better understand who across the United States is bearing the brunt of the job losses.

Table 3
Table 3

1. To create this prediction, we first take industry-specific UI claims from the 11 states that have reported them and calculate average industry-specific UI claim shares of 2019Q3 QCEW employment. Then, we apply these shares to Minnesota’s industry-specific employment totals, proportionally scaling the resulting industry-specific estimates of Minnesota UI claims so that the total matches Minnesota’s reported initial UI claims. Finally, we allocate the resulting predicted industry-specific UI claims to men and women by assuming the UI claims are distributed by gender in the same way as in Minnesota’s sector-specific employment, as measured by state-sector-specific female shares of employment in the 2017–2019 basic monthly Current Population Survey. The 11 states that reported relatively complete industry-specific weekly UI initial claims at the 2-digit NAICS level found in state-level employment offices are?Alabama, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

New survey and report reveals mistreatment of H-2A farmworkers is common: The coronavirus puts them further at risk Wed, 15 Apr 2020 18:30:53 +0000 The irony should be lost on no one that NPR’s reporting on the Trump administration’s push to lower wages for H-2A farmworkers came out the same week that a new report was published by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) that calls into question whether the H-2A temporary work visa program should exist at all without major reforms to protect migrant workers.

The report details the findings of in-depth interviews with 100 H-2A workers, who “reported discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft, and health and safety violations by their employers—and a chilling lack of recourse.” Every single H-2A worker “experienced at least one serious legal violation of their rights, and 94% experienced three or more.” And before they had even arrived in the United States, many were already heavily in debt as a result of paying illegal recruitment fees in exchange for the opportunity to work in a low-wage farm job.

Thanks to numerous past media reports, government audits, and reports from advocates, the public has long known that abuses like these are common among H-2A employers. This is not simply about a few “bad apple” employers. Rather, this is largely a structural problem. Because employers own and control the visa status of their H-2A employees, H-2A workers have a powerful incentive to never complain about mistreatment: If an H-2A worker gets fired, they become deportable. That’s why one EPI study found that H-2A workers earn roughly the same as similarly situated unauthorized immigrant workers, who have virtually no workplace rights in practice.

During the coronavirus pandemic, H-2A employers should be devising safety plans and procedures and procuring additional safety and sanitation equipment. H-2A workers desperately need access to masks, gloves, and other equipment, as well ways to disinfect their hands, tools, clothing, and machinery. They also need to be able to keep a safe distance from other workers where they live and while they’re being transported to and from worksites. And since housing and transportation is provided by employers in the H-2A program, bosses of H-2A workers have a special responsibility to ensure this is the case.

Recent news reports plus the admission of at least one agribusiness representative about the cost of safety measures do not inspire confidence: They have revealed that many farmworkers and H-2A workers are currently at risk of infection and lacking basic health and safety protections. Sadly, if H-2A workers contract the coronavirus, like other farmworkers, whether they’ll have access to paid leave is an open question that will depend on the policies of their employer and the size of the farm they work on.

CDM’s groundbreaking report is a stark reminder that the H-2A program is “Ripe for Reform” and must be overhauled to ensure basic decency and fairness. But so far during the coronavirus pandemic, while the federal government has claimed that H-2A workers are a “national security priority,” they’ve yet to take any new concrete steps to ensure that H-2A workers are able to stay safe and healthy.

The Trump administration has weakened crucial worker protections needed to combat the coronavirus: Agencies tasked with protecting workers have put them in danger Tue, 14 Apr 2020 20:55:28 +0000

Key takeaways:

  • The Department of Labor (DOL) issued a temporary rule that will exempt 96% of applicable firms from providing paid sick and paid family and medical leave to their staff. It could also exempt 9 million health care workers and 4.4 million first responders from receiving paid leave.
  • DOL issued guidance that narrows the eligibility of workers to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). For example, gig workers must be “forced to suspend operations” by a government quarantine in order to receive PUA benefits, rather than voluntarily quarantining themselves.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance that will jeopardize the health and safety of workers. The CDC now allows essential workers to continue to work even if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus—as long as they appear to be asymptomatic and the employer implements additional precautions.
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) advises that certain businesses are not required to investigate or record workplace-related coronavirus cases. Not only does this guidance make workers less safe, it will likely make the public health crisis worse as employers will not be required to record virus-related illness as officials work to track these cases.

In the last three weeks, an unprecedented 17 million workers applied for unemployment insurance (UI), while millions more risk their lives to provide essential services. To mitigate the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress has passed a series of bills aimed at providing relief and recovery measures. The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFRCA) and the CARES Act included critical provisions to assist workers impacted by the pandemic; chief among those are an expansion of Unemployment Insurance (UI) and access to paid leave. However, rather than working to implement these relief and recovery bills efficiently and effectively, the Trump administration has instead looked for ways to narrow and weaken the worker protections included in the legislation.

At a moment when workers desperately need access to paid leave and unemployment insurance benefits, the Department of Labor (DOL) has issued guidance that leaves fewer workers with these critical protections. Further, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reversed guidance for essential workers exposed to the coronavirus—allowing asymptomatic workers to continue working and potentially exposing others to the virus. Finally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced that employers will not be required to record and investigate COVID-19-related illnesses, as they are required to do with other illnesses and injuries, to determine if a worker’s illness is work-related. This not only leaves workers with fewer protections, it will likely make the public health crisis worse as employers will not be required to record virus-related illness as officials work to track these cases.

The Department of Labor excludes millions of workers from paid leave provisions

Under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, workers employed by businesses with less than 500 employees can receive up to two weeks of paid sick leave and 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave for coronavirus-related illnesses or closures. On April 6,?DOL issued a temporary rule providing clarification on the applicability of the paid leave provisions. However, the rule drastically narrows workers’ eligibility for the benefits. For instance, the rule requires an employer to have work for the employee for the employee to have access to paid leave benefits. Therefore, if a business closes due to lack of business or because of a stay-at-home order by a public official, those workers would not be eligible for paid leave benefits. Individuals who are furloughed from a business that remains open are not eligible for benefits either. The rule advises individuals in these cases to apply for UI.

DOL’s temporary rule also excludes millions of workers from receiving paid leave benefits. Under FFCRA, health care providers and first responders can be excluded from the paid leave protections. In the temporary rule, the definition of health care providers and first responders is so expansive that it excludes workers who manufacture medical equipment and janitors at hospitals. In the Department’s cost estimate of the rule, 9 million health care workers and 4.4 million first responders could be excluded from FFCRA’s paid leave provisions. The temporary rule also gives the secretary of labor the authority to exempt employers with fewer than 50 employees from paid leave provisions if the employer deems compliance would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” According the Department’s own estimates, this would exempt 96% of firms covered by the law.

The Department of Labor drastically narrows Pandemic Unemployment Assistance eligibility

The CARES Act provided critical relief to workers who have become unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation provided expanded unemployment insurance through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. This provides independent contractors, gig workers, and those who are self-employed the ability to apply for UI—something they were not eligible prior to the PUA program. However, recently issued guidance by the Department of Labor has significantly narrowed the framework and duration for those receiving benefits under the PUA program. For instance, gig workers must be “forced to suspend operations” in order to receive PUA benefits. This means those who are unable to work due to voluntary quarantine cannot receive benefits; rather, they must be unable to work due to a mandated quarantine issued by public officials. The Department’s guidance also advises states to approve PUA benefits only for the duration they are needed. For instance, in cases of school closures, PUA benefits may be limited to just the duration of the school year, despite parents having continued child care responsibilities once the school year is over.

Agencies tasked with protecting workers are jeopardizing the health and safety of essential workers

Last week, the CDC and OSHA issued guidance that endangers the health and safety of essential workers. At the start of the pandemic, the CDC advised workers who were exposed to a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 to self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to work. However, the CDC now allows essential workers to continue to work even if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus—as long as they appear to be asymptomatic and the employer implements additional precautions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with assuring “safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women,” issued interim guidance on recordkeeping enforcement during the pandemic. Under the guidance, OSHA advises that certain businesses are not required to investigate or record workplace-related coronavirus cases. Not only does this guidance make workers less safe, it will likely make the public health crisis worse as employers will not be required to record virus-related illness as officials work to track these cases.

In the midst of a global pandemic, federal agencies should enforce worker protections—not narrowing or rescinding them all together. However, the Trump administration is doing just that by issuing guidance that exempts workers from critical relief and recovery measures and makes workers providing essential services less safe. More than 33 U.S. senators have called for the Department of Labor to issue additional guidance on the PUA program to ensure workers receive the benefits they are owed. Now Congress must demand the Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control reevaluate their guidance that puts workers’ health, safety, and economic security at risk. Otherwise, millions more workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic will not receive the workplace protections they deserve.

Trump administration looking to cut the already low wages of H-2A migrant farmworkers while giving their bosses a multibillion-dollar bailout Tue, 14 Apr 2020 19:42:10 +0000

Key takeaways:

  • The Trump administration, which recently deemed farmworkers essential to the economy, is considering lowering the wages of the 205,000 migrant farmworkers employed in the United States through the H-2A temporary work visa program, according to published reports.
  • H-2A wages are usually based on a mandated wage standard that varies by region—known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR)—aiming to prevent temporary migrant farmworkers from being underpaid according to local standards and to prevent downward pressure on the wages of farmworkers in the United States.
  • Farmworkers in general are paid very low wages—in 2019 they earned $13.99 per hour, which is only three-fifths of what production and nonsupervisory workers outside of agriculture earned, and they earned less than what workers with lowest levels of education in the U.S. labor market earned.
  • The national average AEWR wage, at $12.96 per hour, was lower than wages for any of these groups of workers, and many H-2A farmworkers earned far less in some of the biggest H-2A states.
  • The Trump administration may try to lower the wages of H-2A farmworkers through the regulatory process or a provision attached to a broader piece of legislation.
  • This comes at a time when farm owners looking to cut their workers’ wages are on the verge of receiving a federal bailout worth at least $16 billion, which will help cover potential financial losses related to impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, NPR reported that “new White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is working with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to see how to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms.” Apparently, the Trump administration believes that temporary migrant farmworkers—who earned between $11.01 and $15.03 per hour in 2019—are overpaid.

Why should migrant farmworkers have to take a pay cut, especially right now, when farmers and ranchers are about to receive at least $16 billion in direct payments thanks to a federal bailout?

The “foreign guest workers” mentioned in the NPR report are migrant workers employed with H-2A visas, through a temporary work visa program used by employers to fill seasonal and temporary agricultural jobs. There were about 205,000 H-2A workers employed in 2019, for an average of six months each, accounting for about 10% of full-time-equivalent farmworker jobs. The minimum wage employers are required to pay H-2A workers is in most cases set by the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), which varies by region.

The AEWR is not a magical scheme to artificially lift wages for migrant farmworkers, as Secretary Perdue seems to want people to believe. Instead, it’s based on the average wage paid to all nonsupervisory field and livestock workers as determined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey of employers. (The survey includes H-2A and unauthorized immigrant farmworkers and only excludes farmworkers hired by farm labor contractors.)

The AEWR exists for two main reasons:

  1. To prevent farmworkers who are recruited from abroad from being underpaid relative to other farmworkers in the region where they’re employed.
  2. To prevent downward pressure on the wages of farmworkers in the United States, one-quarter of whom are U.S.-born citizens, along with another quarter who are naturalized citizens or lawful permanent residents. Lowering the AEWR will put downward pressure on the wages of all farmworkers.

Reports about cutting pay for H-2A farmworkers are even more perplexing given that the Trump administration has declared them a “national security priority.”

Although the U.S. State Department has stopped processing most temporary visas during the coronavirus pandemic and national emergency, it recently announced that H-2A visas are “essential to the economy and food security of the United States and [are] a national security priority.” As a result, State will keep processing H-2A visas and has begun waiving the in-person interviews that are usually required for applicants, in order to promote social distancing.

The State Department’s waiver of interviews and the Trump administration’s additional determination that farmworkers are part of America’s “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce” suggest that farmworkers are doing an important job—arguably so important that they deserve an increase in pay at a time like this when their job puts their health at risk, i.e., they should receive an “essential worker bonus” (or what’s often referred to as “hazard pay”) and certainly not a pay cut.

Let’s put that aside for a moment and consider the evidence: Are H-2A farmworkers overpaid?

Looking first at what all farmworkers earn (not just H-2A workers), the available data show that—despite some real increases in wages the past few years for farmworkers—their wages are still extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education (see Figure A).

In 2019, the average wage of all nonsupervisory farmworkers was $13.99 per hour, according to USDA, while the average wage for all workers in 2019 was $26.53 per hour, meaning the farmworker wage was just 53% of the average for all workers. And the average wage for production and nonsupervisory nonfarm workers—the most logical cohort for workers outside of agriculture to compare with farmworkers—was $23.51.

In other words, farmworkers earned 60%—just three-fifths—of what production and nonsupervisory workers outside of agriculture earned. In 2018, USDA referred to this gap between farmworker and nonfarm worker wages as “slowly shrinking, but still substantial.” The farmworker wage gap remained substantial in 2019.

Figure A
Figure A

Farmworkers have very low levels of educational attainment. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 30% completed the 10th, 11th, or 12th grade, and 10% completed some education beyond high school. So how do the wages of farmworkers fare with respect to the two groups of workers with the lowest levels of education in the United States—those with only a high school diploma (and no additional schooling) or those with less than a high school diploma? Farmworkers earned slightly less than the average wage earned by workers without a high school diploma, who earned $14.08 per hour, and earned nearly $5 less per hour than the average wage earned by workers with only a high school diploma ($18.91).

The nationwide average hourly AEWR wage for H-2A workers was even lower than the wage for all nonsupervisory farmworkers in 2019—meaning the gap between what many H-2A farmworkers and workers outside of agriculture earn is even wider.

Although the AEWR varies by region, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reported that the nationwide average hourly AEWR in 2019 was $12.96 per hour. While the AEWR was higher in some states—the highest being in six states where the AEWR was between $14.38 and $15.03 in 2019—nevertheless it was lower than the average in many states, including some of the biggest H-2A states. For example, Georgia and South Carolina accounted for 14% of all H-2A jobs in 2019; those two states, along with Alabama, had the lowest overall AEWR, at $11.01 per hour. The AEWR in Florida—the biggest H-2A state, where 13% of all H-2A jobs were located in 2019—was only a few cents more, at $11.24 per hour. In other words, many H-2A workers are earning wages that are even lower than the H-2A national average wage—wage rates that are at or near poverty levels—not exorbitant salaries as Secretary Perdue wants people to believe.

So how would the Trump administration go about lowering the AEWR for H-2A workers?

The NPR report notes that so far it’s “unclear” but that it could take place “through executive action or through the federal regulatory process.”

In late July 2019 the Trump administration proposed and took comments on a new federal regulation that would result in a lower AEWR for many H-2A workers, which dozens of farmworker and immigrant advocate groups opposed. The regulation is still under consideration and the final version has not been published; one route the Trump administration could attempt would be to publish the final rule with last-minute changes that lower wages for H-2A workers even further than originally proposed. There’s a high likelihood that this tactic would be unlawful, but that doesn’t mean the administration won’t try it.

The Trump administration could also issue a new emergency regulation lowering the AEWR or ask Congress to include a provision to lower the AEWR in a possible fourth coronavirus relief bill. While it’s likely that all Republicans would be in favor of such a provision, it’s possible that some Democrats from farm states and even those in leadership might support this, too, given their usual posture of supporting the agricultural industry’s priorities on H-2A.

The data show clearly that H-2A workers are paid some of the lowest wage rates in the U.S. labor market. In fact, there’s zero evidence to justify Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue’s myth of the overpaid H-2A migrant farmworker.

The only rational explanation for lowering the wages of H-2A farmworkers right now is corporate greed and unquestioning subservience to agribusiness on the part of the Trump administration. While H-2A farmworkers are labeled essential and expected to keep on working, requiring them to earn even less than they already do, so that farm owners won’t have to suffer slightly slimmer profit margins for a few months, is nonsensical on its face.

The coronavirus will explode achievement gaps in education Tue, 14 Apr 2020 17:16:35 +0000 This blog post was originally posted on

The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them.

The academic achievement gap has bedeviled educators for years. In math and reading, children of college-educated parents score on average at about the 60th percentile, while children whose parents have only a high school diploma score, on average, at the 35th percentile.* The academic advantages of children whose parents have master’s degrees and beyond are even greater.

To a significant extent, this is a neighborhood issue—schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last 50 years, mostly because the neighborhoods in which they are located are so segregated. Schools with concentrated populations of children affected by serious socioeconomic problems are able to devote less time and attention to academic instruction.

In 2001 we adopted the “No Child Left Behind Act,” assuming that these disparities mostly stemmed from schools’ failure to take seriously a responsibility to educate African American, Hispanic, and lower-income students. Supporters claimed that holding educators accountable for test results would soon eliminate the achievement gap. Promoted by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the theory was ludicrous, and the law failed to fulfill its promise. The achievement gap mostly results from social-class based advantages that some children bring to school and that others lack, as well as disadvantages stemming from racial discrimination that only some children have to face.

The coronavirus, unfortunately, will only exacerbate the effects of these advantages.

With schools shut, white-collar professionals with college degrees operate home schools, sometimes with superior curricular enhancements. My own children, with postgraduate degrees, are introducing my young grandchildren to Shakespeare and algebra, topics they would ordinarily encounter only in later grades. A friend, a biologist in normal times, now staying home from work, is taking her preschool, kindergarten, and 2nd-grade children for walks in the woods where they learn the names of birds, why goldfinches get their bright yellow wings, about sexual selection in birds and their funny displays to attract a mate, and how moss reproduces with spores. They found some of that moss in the woods and saw that when you touch the red part, it lets out a puff of tiny spores; this was a huge hit with the children.

In neighborhoods that are socioeconomically segregated, friends and classmates of children like these have similar experiences. Parents with full-time professional jobs never before had the opportunity to be full-time instructors, and many make the most of it.

Meanwhile, many parents with less education have jobs that even during the coronavirus crisis cannot be performed at home—supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, delivery truck drivers. Even with distance learning being established by schools and teachers—many of whom are now busy with their own children at home—too many students in low-income and rural communities don’t have internet access: 35% of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet; for moderate-income families it is 17%, and only 6% for middle-class and affluent families. When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African American and Hispanic families.

In New York City, 300,000 students live in homes with no computer. The Philadelphia school system, a majority of whose students are from low-income families, initially chose not to conduct online classes during the coronavirus shutdown because it would be so inequitable: “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” the schools superintendent announced. He has since relented and announced that the district would purchase Chromebooks and lend them to students without computers. This did not, however, solve the problem for students who have no high-speed internet service at home, something the district is trying to address, but only with great difficulty and not in time to bridge the current digital divide.

For students in some states, the shutdown could last for almost half the school year. The achievement gap between low-income and other children is already equivalent to at least two years of schooling. Might the coronavirus shutdown expand that by another half year?

We have evidence that tells us what to expect. Increased reliance on homework, for example, widens achievement gaps. Children whose parents can more effectively help with homework gain more than children whose parents can do so less well.

We also know that the educational gap is wider when children return after summer vacation than it was in the spring, because middle-class children frequently have summer enrichment that reinforces knowledge and experience. The larger gap shows up in test scores, but also in less easily quantifiable areas that are particularly valued in higher education, professional workplaces, and civic life, such as cooperative skills in group activities, possibly due to enrichment from things like summer camp and family travel.

Children living in low-income, disinvested, overcrowded, or less-safe neighborhoods are more likely to experience toxic stress from exposure to violence, homelessness, and economic insecurity that interfere with emotional health and learning, as well as leading to behavior challenges that affect the classroom environment for others.

For some, school is the safest place. Teachers report that when children in low-income neighborhoods who are living in overcrowded and highly stressed homes return to school after breaks, evidence of physical abuse is more noticeable. (Two examples of research on this can be found here and here.) It is frightening to consider the consequences of a three- or four-month break when some children and parents will be isolated and frustrated in overcrowded conditions.

Congressional consideration of a massive economic program to minimize a virus-induced depression has properly focused on immediate needs to save small businesses, enhance and extend unemployment insurance, and guarantee sick leave. But when schools reopen, the expanded achievement gap will be in urgent need of intervention.

We can’t (and in a free society, probably shouldn’t) try to reduce the resources that advantaged parents can give children (although Philadelphia’s attempt to forego online instruction on equity grounds offers a contrary ideal). But we can increase resources for other children to provide more equity. Federal law now provides added support for schools serving low-income children. It enables, for example, the hire of additional teacher aides or reading specialists, the purchase of some additional curriculum materials, reduced class sizes in schools serving concentrations of low-income students, or a truncated summer school program focused on basic skills. The stubborn persistence of the achievement gap shows it is not nearly enough.

We should do much more. Not only should we substantially increase teacher pay, but also finance nurses, social workers, art and music teachers, instructional librarians, and after-school and summer programs that not only provide homework help but clubs that develop collaborative skills, organized athletics, and citizenship preparation—like the expansive education that middle-class children typically receive at parents’ expense.

Most important, all children should have publicly funded, high-quality early childhood education, including preschool for three- and four-year-olds with evidence-based programs. If a research consensus exists on anything in education, it is that the socioeconomic gap in cognitive performance is well established by age three.

The continued segregation of children by income and race, however, will dilute the impact of even these reforms. In the long run, redressing this segregation has the potential for a much bigger impact. That redress should include both opening up middle-class and affluent neighborhoods to diverse residents, and improving the quality of existing disadvantaged neighborhoods, not only with better-resourced schools, but with mixed-income housing, transportation access to good jobs, markets that sell fresh food, and walkable options.

Americans have become dramatically more divided by income and wealth. Upward mobility has declined; inequality is increasingly transmitted intergenerationally. We can act to prevent the coronavirus from accelerating these trends.


*The estimates of achievement differences by parental educational attainment, and of how achievement gap can be expressed in “years of schooling” are based on an average of fourth- and eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The estimates were developed for this article by economists at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), using the online NAEP Data Tool. Martin Carnoy is a professor of education at Stanford University and an EPI research associate, and Emma Garcia is an EPI staff economist. I am grateful to them for their assistance.