State of Working North Carolina

Nearly three years have passed since the first cases of COVID-19 were
detected in the United States. After a series of shutdowns halting
much of normal life, the largest federal stimulus package in U.S. history,
and a mass vaccination campaign, policymakers and pundits were
quick to agree that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. Despite
this messaging, U.S. COVID-19 cases were higher in the early-2022
Omicron wave than at any other point during the pandemic.1
As the
narrative shifted to living with endemic COVID and going back to work,2,3,4
temporary safeguards for workers throughout the pandemic, such as
increased unemployment benefits, were removed.
While a roller-coaster labor market has at times favored workers during
the pandemic, the lows were low, and the highs were offset by inflation5
paired with the removal of federal economic supports that had kept
people afloat early in the pandemic. Despite this, policies that will make
the labor market even worse for working people are on the horizon.6
care economy has become untenable for patients, their loved ones, and
care workers alike. A lack of safeguards for workers amid the pandemic
has created dangerous workplaces and led to unsustainable attrition,
and the care burden placed on families is keeping people — particularly
women and especially women of color — out of work.
All of these choices — sending vulnerable workers back in the midst
of a pandemic; letting an under-regulated and underfunded care
industry erode; and removing economic safeguards that kept low-wage
workers from financial peril — have created an environment for working
people that further entrenches structural inequities. Although the
pandemic brought to light the roots of an economy that relies on worker
vulnerability and exploitation, moving beyond a return to “business as
usual” will require a continued examination of how poor people, Black
and Brown people, women, and people at the intersection of these
identities are a central part of America’s essential workforce yet still
disproportionately bear the brunt of exploitative and inhumane work
Making progress will require that working people demand that their
employers value, respect, and protect them. Many people have been
able to pursue additional education and training needed to move to
more stable and less dangerous careers. Federal supports and extended
unemployment benefits, although short-lived, have given us a glimpse
of a system that can support people during hard times. And faced with a
callous disregard for their safety and health, working North Carolinians
and others around the country have stood together and walked out, gone
on strike, formed unions, and otherwise demanded that employers do
better for working people.
Workers have given policymakers a blueprint for how to support them
— by maintaining a safety net that allows marginalized workers to take
care of their basic needs; by reducing the caregiving burden of working
people; by providing well-paid, dignified jobs for people working as
caregivers; and by helping workers build power in their workplaces and in
our democracy to protect themselves, their coworkers, and their families.
If we follow this blueprint, we can build a more just North Carolina.