Opinion: Front Line Workers Who Got Us Through the Pandemic Deserve Relief

Workers
Pexels.com photo.

By Heather Iliff

The writer is president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits.

Maryland has a $2.5 billion surplus, and projections for future revenues are up another $1.5 billion — all because many sectors of our economy did better than expected. State revenues did well because most of the pain felt and most of the jobs lost during COVID were among those with lower incomes.

The businesses and individuals who did well benefitted from the more than 290,000 nonprofit workers who kept our most vulnerable residents safe, fed, housed and treated if they fell sick, and comforted when their loved ones died.

Now they and the helpers need help. Front line workers in all sectors got lauded as heroes but they didn’t get lifted out of poverty despite working 40 or more hours, often in multiple jobs with no benefits. Now we can no longer say our economy can’t afford to pay people a living wage. We can’t claim we must save the money for a rainy day.

For Marylanders who are suffering, it’s raining now. It’s a downpour.

Maryland Nonprofits is calling on Maryland’s government leaders to devote at least $1 billion of the surplus for services and assistance to Marylanders still in need.

In the caring professions — direct care professionals, nursing assistants, people who support seniors and people with disabilities, those who care for abused and neglected children — are themselves hard hit by COVID-19.

This predominantly female, Black and Latino workforce is getting pummeled during COVID. We see them skip meals and triage late fees on bills that are piling up while they triage cases of people they are serving. This is fundamentally not fair, and Maryland can and should make good on its responsibility to pay people a living wage and fair benefits.

Nonprofit staff are exhausted with extended long hours because of increased demands for services and staff vacancies. Why can’t we just raise wages?

Because our government contracts don’t cover even the basic costs of services. Other sources of funds are not even close to making up the difference. Individual contributions are shrinking, and corporate funding makes up only 2% of nonprofit revenue, despite record corporate profits.

Not only are nonprofits underfunded, they’re drowning in unnecessary regulation. Government contracts and grants come with so much red tape that nonprofits must pay more for professional grant writers, finance staff and compliance officers, stealing time and money from the people we are serving.

Heather Iliff

The Paycheck Protection Program application, designed for business relief, was just two pages long. So, a simpler system is possible. Applications that nonprofits must complete can run hundreds of pages to meet government requirements. Even after we jump through all these hoops, it can take months for governments to deliver payments: in some cases, more than a year late. Excessive paperwork neither prevents fraud nor helps the people the voters intended to help.

Now is the time to give back — to a charitable sector under serious strain. Seventy-nine percent of nonprofits lost fee-for-service revenue and 40% never got the PPP or any COVID-19 relief. We can’t keep doing more for less in a state that experienced literal booms in swimming pools, yachts and luxury real estate during COVID.

A strong economy should be a fair economy. Where some see a labor shortage, we see a shortage of fair wages. Where some see immigrants as a burden, we see the largest growth in new workers and new businesses adding vibrancy to our economy.

Where some see “blighted neighborhoods,” we see people doing their best to survive in a system stacked against them. For decades, the federal government would not insure mortgages in predominantly Black neighborhoods (a “red line” was drawn on the map) while it was subsidizing white people buying homes in the suburbs.

Today’s redlining in the height of the pandemic comes in the form of low home value in majority Black neighborhoods, predatory lending, a biased credit scoring system, evictions and steep, often insurmountable paperwork requirements for rental relief.

Nonprofits are a non-governmental way to break down these systems of oppression, through programs that help people upgrade their job skills, repair and refurbish homes, build and run recreational centers for youth, and so much more.

A $1 billion minimum investment in services to communities, families and individuals, and wages for direct care workers will provide immediate relief and will be a down payment on our commitment to just and equitable incomes for those that are carrying the heaviest burdens.