Public should take priority when framing ‘public policy’

The landscape is not as bleak as it might seem in the shadow of COVID-19. House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has just given low-wage workers reason to hope. She is reported to have said recently when asked about the state budget:
“Our priority right now is to get a handle on making sure that basic needs for our citizens are taken care of.”
What welcome news to low-wage workers who are so often short-changed as they try to be seen and heard above the din of lobbyists who wield much more influence on behalf of corporate interests. When did we last give the basic needs of workers “priority”?
The COVID-19 crisis is surely driving home the lesson that meeting the basic needs of workers serves all of our interests. Have we ever been more grateful that the ships and trucks are loaded and unloaded? That shelves are stocked? That our first responders are on the job? That medical, administrative and janitorial staff at every level of every medical facility are doing all they can to respond to our needs?
While most of us stay at home to tame the spread of the virus, many of our friends and neighbors put themselves at considerable risk of contracting the virus as they work to make sure life continues with as much normalcy as possible in these very abnormal times.

Looking back: Hotel workers take to the streets to say “One Job Should Be Enough.” It’s past time to  ensure a living wage.

One of the peculiar abnormalities that we have been content to live with for too long is the knowledge that thousands of low-wage workers in this punishingly expensive state work more than a full day, often at more than one job, and still cannot pay for their most basic needs.

We have become accustomed to the fallout from not paying people who work a full day a living wage. We have watched our sidewalks and parks become the sites for encampments of those who have literally stopped being able to pay for a roof over their heads and food on the table. Yes, some are mentally ill and some are addicted. But the simple truth from the state’s own research tells us that no one can survive — just survive — on $10.10 an hour. Not even if they are working two jobs.
Both the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) and the Aloha United Way ALICE report make it very clear that nearly half the state lives in, or near, poverty. They cannot make ends meet. To survive, a single person needs to be paid a minimum of $17 an hour.
To expect them to manage somehow without a living wage is magical thinking.
It’s more magical thinking to imagine that if the hourly wage goes up to $13 an hour by 2024, our workers will manage. Somehow our low-income workers will do what none of us can: make that $10.10 or even $13 an hour pay for rent and groceries and the essentials of living?

The recess has given the Legislature the benefit of stepping back and surveying the suffering exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. It should see what every one of us sees: our indebtedness to the least among us. It isn’t pious to insist on a living wage; it is pragmatic.

Young Progressives Demanding Action (YPDA) – organizing for a more civically engaged electorate.

A coalition of nonprofits has identified priorities to make sure that federal funds coming our way are used to ensure that the “basic needs of our citizens are taken care of.”
The nonprofits call for funding for emergency food systems like food banks and senior/child meals and aid to those at risk of losing their housing.
They also call for a stronger moratorium on evictions and foreclosures so as to keep more people from becoming houseless.

The legislative recess should not paralyze us. Instead, let’s reaffirm our commitment to putting people first as we frame public policy.

Watching from the gallery: Will public policies represent the public interest?

This OpEd was first published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, April 13, 2020.  Once again in this pandemic, nonprofits are doing courageous work on shoestring budgets, filling the potholes in the landscape of public services caused by the failure of elected officials to put the needs of the community before corporate interests. COVID19 is making ever clearer the human suffering writ large on our sidewalks.  People are struggling to feed their families on reduced paychecks or minus the income from the so-called gig economy that is not allowing gigs–or making the essential services they provide really hazardous for those who perform them.  As a businesswoman who has managed small businesses, I have known the stress of meeting payroll and rent every month. That experience has only reinforced the belief that while businesses need to be profitable, we also have a moral obligation to make sure that those on the lower rungs of the payroll are paid fairly, and can afford basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, medical attention. When even as conservative a body as the Business Roundtable, under Jamie Dimon, joined by dozens of business leaders, recognizes that businesses needs to honor its moral compact with employees, Hawaii legislators have to help voters understand why they do not exert themselves more to serve the voters who elected them, not special moneyed interests. COVID19 is shedding a very clear light on the quality of leadership we have in Hawaii.

                                                                                     Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation

“Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.”

This statement from the national Business Roundtable was released on Aug 19, 2019 and has been signed by close to 200 hundred business leaders. Will Hawaii’s business leaders  and lawmakers lend their name to a similar statement of commitment?

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Posted in 2020 Hawaii legislative session, Fighting Poverty, I BLOG, Living wage, Uncategorized
5 comments on “Public should take priority when framing ‘public policy’
  1. Kudos to you, Dawn, for “scoring” this important commentary via your “Island Voices” op-ed in April 13th’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser! Consistent with other equally passionate and pointed contributions offered by you on a regular basis, you are the principled “public policy” advocate for me and for multitudes of “the least of us”! May Ms. Luke and many other political and policy-formulating leaders take note that you have put them on notice….

    (I initially skipped over your concluding paragraph above! After perusing it, I am taken by the BR’s recognition that “businesses need to honor (their) moral compact with employees.” I’ve recently advanced an opinion/proposal in local activist circles [primarily Faith Action for Community Equity; I thought of including you in the thread but ultimately did not…] that, as the country reels and tries to re-group, a radical restructuring of businesses, banking, policy, regulation, etc., to make “free enterprise” move away from uber-capitalism (featuring some 600 billionaires in the US and toward a people/employee paradigm. My (a/one) solution for that is a serious-serious look at setting up business plans, operations, and approval processes to make “profit-sharing” the rule rather than the heretofore (my sensing) last-choice option. As a businessperson, might this idea resonate with you and, if so, can you contemplate ways that it might somehow be introduced to and forced into mainstream discourse…and become, sooner rather than later, an engine that could change “corporate America” into a more “people-first, employee-friendly, humane” economic system? I cannot but feel that this idea is right on track with BR’s statement! Note: I believe this “profit-sharing” concept can be equally applicable to existing businesses that might be driven into insolvency by the current crisis and want to re-group and prosper anew; to existing surviving businesses willing to ride a wave to a restructured-commerce system; and to new start-ups.)

  2. Alexandrya Robinson says:

    The people who are currently classified as essential workers have not been a priority for years. These people are expected to risk their lives to maintain what they currently have, which in the case of most, is not much. But while they do this they are not being given just the basic wage they need to survive.
    In light of COVID19, it is a time for revolution. Things that have been said to be not feasible are being done. Now is the time to take that a step further and improve conditions for everyone for when we emerge from this pandemic.

  3. M. Griffin says:

    When reading this, I remembered a tweet of a young McDonald’s worker who said because she is considered an “essential” worker, she must continue coming to work. She is paid minimum wage and is terrified of contracting of COVID-19 because of her constant exposure to the people coming into McDonald’s. Someone replied something to the effect of “you are a hero! Thank you for your service.” However, another user retorted: “She is not a hero, she is a sacrifice…” I believe it is unfair to pay these people a non-living wage for a job that could compromise/risk their very lives. Throwing the “hero” label around just brings comfort to those who do not have to do these jobs or are financially comfortable during this crisis. If these workers are actually “heroes,” I would think they should be compensated as such for their services.

  4. Lindney says:

    It’s sad to say that the issue of low-income workers struggling to survive in Hawaii, still persists. We are putting more and more people on the streets to rot. It is not a cliche statement, but a long-term problem. These individuals who are working for $10.10 an hour and surviving, put in the most work but still benefit very little. Now they and their families have to suffer more from the effects of coronavirus. Overall, pandemic or not, they continue to struggle. When will Hawaii ever ‘help’ them?

    This Op Ed also made me think about the recent news I have seen on HNN. The Honolulu Salary commission recommended a 3% increase across the board for city council members and city department heads. Those funds can be used to actually help our suffering families or those who are homeless. In addition, the Governor is proposing 20% pay cuts for teachers and 10% pay cuts for our first responders. So at this point, I am very unsure of the plans that the administration has, or if they have any kind of plan. We should be able to expect more from our elected leaders.

  5. Sarah-Lyn Kaeo says:

    During this time, we call these workers (e.g., janitors, grocery store clerks, ship/cargo workers) “essential,” meaning they’re important and necessary. It is during a global crisis that we recognized their hard work, place heavy reliance on them, and appreciate all they do for us. But even before this COVID19 crisis occurred, they were essential to us but we did not see that. Yet, when this is over, their living wage will remain the same at $10.10. I believe this is unfair, and for our government to not raise their minimum wage in a state with an ever-increasing high cost of living, they are taking advantage of these essential workers. As you can see, they work hard like everyone else. Maybe harder. For instance, the Salvation Army volunteers who helped pass out their food donations at Ala Moana work hard. They moved food products around and had to maintain traffic in their area for hours. They also have families to support as well. Additionally, all essential workers place their lives at risk daily for the sake of our communities’ – including the government’s – well-being. For the government to not take action right now on the living wage of essential workers, it shows that they are not putting Hawaii’s families first, and they will be sorry when they see hundreds more families on the streets crying out for help.

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