It’s hard to keep up with all the bad news from the federal government, from the botched COVID-19 public health response to the child care industry left on the brink of collapse. What’s worse, this pandemic is disproportionately ravaging communities of color and women—the majority of essential workers—but they are not centered in the federal COVID response.
Fortunately, I found a beacon of hope in state lawmakers who are centering equity in their policy responses as they recognize how women of color bear the brunt of this crisis.
Here are six ways state lawmakers are centering gender and racial justice during the pandemic:
1. Ensuring Workers Have Access to Paid Sick Leave (During and After the Pandemic)
Although Congress enacted emergency paid sick and family leave protections this spring, millions of workers were left out of those protections. This impacted women of color particularly hard as they are overrepresented in low-wage jobs without these critical protections and shoulder the majority of caregiving responsibilities.
Working people need access to paid sick days all the time, not just during a pandemic. New York enacted emergency paid sick leave to fill the gaps in the federal response and permanent paid sick leave in April, providing the right to earn up to 56 hours of paid sick time. Colorado followed suit in June, providing all employees up to six paid sick days annually, as well as two weeks paid sick leave during a public health emergency.
2. Supporting Immigrant Communities
Despite immigrant women facing an outsized risk of being financially and physically impacted by COVID-19, immigrant communities have largely been carved out of federal stimulus packages and unable to access supports for those who are underemployed and unemployed.
California is implementing programs like targeted food assistance and $500 payments to all residents, including undocumented families. Connecticut also opted for an immigrant-inclusive recovery plan, piloting a public-private partnership that provides economic relief for undocumented residents through a 4-CT Card, a state-sponsored debit card.
3. Expanding Access to Reproductive Healthcare
Going to the doctor these days is difficult, so it is crucial that every person has access to critical reproductive care when they need it. South Carolina recently enacted a law so that people on Medicaid can get a year’s supply of birth control pills. West Virginia enacted a similar requirement for both public and private insurance so people have easier access to birth control during the pandemic and beyond.
4. Increasing Access to High-Quality, Affordable Child Care
States have supported child care programs through multiple policies meant to stabilize the child care market for families and child care workers, who are disproportionately Black and brown women. Minnesota provided grants to child care programs serving essential workers, Vermont created a statewide stabilization program for child care providers that closed during the pandemic, and Michigan aims to provide grants to all providers, whether open or closed.
While states have taken important steps to assist the child care sector, they rely on federal funds to help support these efforts—and will need more federal investments to continue.
5. Assistance with Housing
The federal partial eviction moratorium expired in late July and millions of people risk eviction and utility shut offs. Mass evictions will overwhelmingly burden communities of color and women, in particular Black women.
Several states, including Massachusetts and Oregon, extended eviction moratoriums through the fall and others extended them for several weeks after the public health emergency ends. Several states created rental assistance programs to help protect renters from eviction now and after moratoria expire, including Pennsylvania which recently unveiled a $175 million rental and mortgage assistance plan.
6. Establishing State Workplace Safety and Health Standards
The Occupational Safety and Health Agency received more than 6,000 complaints about unsafe work conditions, but hasn’t enacted a “Temporary Emergency Standard” requiring all employers to provide COVID-19 specific safety protections for workers. The agency’s failure to act endangers millions of frontline workers, many of whom are women of color.
Virginia took charge to address this void by becoming the first state to adopt its own enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard. Fourteen other states have passed temporary safety guidelines to ensure physical distancing, handwashing, and disinfecting procedures.
These states give me hope that when this global health crisis is over, we will look back and see that our pre-pandemic paradigm has shifted to center the lived experiences of women and communities of color.