COVID-19 toll has fallen heavily on women, Black and Hispanic/Latinx Alabamians

By Chris Sanders, Alabama Arise

Alabama should rebuild from the COVID-19 recession by lifting policy barriers to economic opportunity and charting a path toward a more equitable and inclusive future, according to The State of Working Alabama 2021, a new report that Alabama Arise released Monday.

Medicaid expansion and a state law guaranteeing paid sick leave both would help strengthen Alabama’s workforce, the report says. Other policy recommendations include higher funding for nutrition and housing assistance and improvements to the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) system.

The Alabama Legislature moved quickly to pass “pro-business” bills in the opening days of the 2021 regular session. These measures included a new law providing a broad range of civil immunity against claims related to coronavirus exposure. As lawmakers return to Montgomery after a weeklong break, their policymaking focus should shift toward addressing their constituents’ urgent needs during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said.

“Legislators spent the first two weeks of this session protecting the interests of corporations,” Hyden said. “They should spend the rest of the session protecting the interests of the people of Alabama. And Arise’s State of Working Alabama report provides a blueprint for how to do just that.”

COVID-19’s toll has fallen heavily on women, Black and Hispanic/Latinx Alabamians
Arise’s seven-section report examines economic challenges – both old and new – that Alabamians have faced over the last year. Health coverage, housing, hunger, wages and working conditions for front-line workers are among the topics covered in The State of Working Alabama 2021. The report also highlights how the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting racial, gender and regional disparities in our state. “When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alabama in March 2020, it didn’t just cause massive human suffering and economic disruption,” the Arise report says. “It also revealed suffering and disruption that have long existed and that policymakers have long neglected – or even perpetuated.”

Past policy decisions left Alabama inadequately prepared to respond to the pandemic, the report finds. They also created and maintained racial and gender disparities that prevent our state from reaching its full potential. Among the report’s major findings:

Alabama’s “essential workers,” hailed as pandemic heroes, often lack the basic protections of a living wage, health insurance, paid sick leave and family medical leave.

COVID-19 has caused disproportionate unemployment for Black people and women in Alabama. Economically disadvantaged counties in the Black Belt and other parts of Alabama also have lagged behind in unemployment recovery.

Before the pandemic, 62.2% of Alabama’s white workers had health insurance through their jobs. The same was true for only 46.4% of Black workers and just 35.5% of Hispanic/Latinx workers. The pandemic has widened those racial/ethnic disparities in health coverage.

Hunger has been widespread in Alabama’s communities of color during the COVID-19 recession. Early in the pandemic, nearly 21% of Black residents and 19% of Hispanic/Latinx residents said they didn’t have enough food.

Black and Hispanic/Latinx Alabamians are at higher risk of eviction for inability to pay rent. Even basic apartments are out of financial reach for low-wage workers everywhere in Alabama.

Policies to increase equity, expand economic opportunity for working Alabamians
Alabama’s policy legacy has exacerbated the damage that COVID-19 has wreaked on working people across the state, the report finds. The State of Working Alabama 2021 outlines a policy agenda to repair that damage and promote broadly shared prosperity. Among the report’s key recommendations:

*Expand Medicaid to ensure more than 300,000 Alabamians with low incomes can afford treatment for COVID-19 and other health problems.

*Guarantee permanent paid sick leave for all working Alabamians, so that no one has to choose between earning a paycheck and going to work sick.

*Roll back the 2019 cuts to Alabama’s UI benefits and create a modernized claims system capable of handling future crises.

*Provide state support for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund and abandon efforts to impose harmful limits on safety net programs.

*Expand high-speed, affordable broadband technology, targeting rural and low-income communities and explicitly addressing racial equity in broadband access.

“The economic, racial and gender inequities in Alabama are preventable and reversible,” Alabama Arise policy director Jim Carnes said. “These disparities are the direct result of bad policy choices in the past. By making better choices now and in the future, we can chart a path toward a more equitable economy. The power to build a stronger, more inclusive Alabama is in the hands of our lawmakers – and all of us.”