Op-Ed: What we can do to prevent worsening racial and economic inequality in NJ

Sara Cullinane, Raquel Velasquez | February 25, 2021 | Opinion
‘The pandemic caps off a decade of worsening economic inequality nationwide and in New Jersey’
Raquel Velasquez, left, and Sara Cullinane

COVID-19 has devastated our state and our country, and nowhere has the loss of life and economic collapse been felt more acutely than among working-class and poor people of color and immigrants. The pandemic caps off a decade of worsening economic inequality nationwide and at home in New Jersey. Even before the virus hit, Black and Latinx New Jerseyans were three times more likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors and about half as likely to own a home. During the pandemic, Black and Latinx New Jerseyans’ hospitalization and mortality rates are twice as high as those for their white counterparts, and they have had the highest job loss.

Much of the country has been able to shelter in place during the worst months of the pandemic on the backs of essential workers, who have completed critical work under precarious and unsafe working conditions and for substandard wages. In New Jersey, undocumented immigrants are both overrepresented among essential workers and in industries most impacted by layoffs during the pandemic but have yet to receive a penny in unemployment or stimulus aid despite paying $600 million in local and state taxes and $1.2 billion in federal taxes. At the same time, the state’s 10 billionaires’ net worth increased a staggering $1.77 billion during the first five months of the pandemic. Amazon has become the state’s largest employer during the pandemic and has reaped record profits while many of its workers are pushed onto publicly subsidized health insurance.

As the pandemic rages, New Jersey Black, Latinx and immigrant residents have feared attacks from local police and federal law enforcement, leading to deep mistrust in government. New Jersey’s nearly 1 million noncitizens and their family members have been threatened with raids, detention and permanent family separation over the past four years, causing deep fear and permanent damage to our communities. At school, Black youth are more likely than white classmates to be referred to the criminal justice system during the school day by school safety officers. Police are three times as likely to use force against a Black person in New Jersey than a white person.

How we can recover

To fully recover from the pandemic, bold and transformative measures are necessary to prevent worsening racial and economic inequality. As the federal government shifts to repair our broken immigration system, there is an opportunity to repair the harm of the past four-plus years and build a system that prioritizes family unity over separation and provides a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants. At home in New Jersey, we can end detention, invest in access to counsel for immigrants, and stop the school-to-prison pipeline by diverting funds from school-based police to student supportive services. As our state rebuilds the economy, we must prioritize worker safety and building workers’ voice on the job, as well as ensuring every family, including undocumented workers excluded from federal and state COVID-19 relief, has access to income replacement and cash assistance.

These are just some of the recommendations we unveiled this week in our Respect and Dignity Platform, a set of federal, state, and local policy solutions to improve the lives of millions of New Jerseyans and put our state on a pathway to equity, recovery, and justice. These recommendations represent the collective vision of the immigrant and working-class adult and youth members of Make the Road New Jersey.

Other recommendations:

  • Use wage boards to raise the wage for essential workers: Most essential workers nationwide receive less than a $15 hourly minimum wage, and few in New Jersey have received hazard pay. New Jersey is one of a few states that can use wage boards to raise wages in sectors where workers are receiving less than a fair rate. This measure could support workers who have been left behind from the $15 minimum wage, like farmworkers and tipped workers, and to enhance pay for our essential workers in warehouse and other industries.
  • Rein in Amazon: As Amazon becomes the largest employer in New Jersey and a dangerous monopoly worldwide, New Jersey should investigate the corporation for workplace abuses and violations of anti-trust law, and should look into the controversial use of the Ring program. (Amazon’s Ring service has partnership agreements with 400 police departments around the country that give law enforcement agencies special access to Ring camera locations and the ability to request surveillance camera video through Ring and its Neighbors app. This provides police departments with massive amounts of video surveillance footage. Congress should also pass anti-monopoly measures to break up Amazon’s control on markets.)
  • End the school-to-prison pipeline: The state Legislature should pass a law to redefine New Jersey’s hundreds of millions of dollars in annual “categorical security aid” to prioritize student supports instead of guard salaries. New Jersey should move funding from school safety officers to school support services. In addition, the Legislature should strengthen public reporting requirements, particularly regarding security spending and use of force on students.

Pro-immigrant reform

Gov. Phil Murphy’s first term brought about seismic change in how our state regards immigrants, people of color and workers. Under the Murphy administration, New Jersey has implemented at least seven pro-immigrant policies, including expanding access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, creating the state’s first — and the nation’s second  — publicly funded legal representation program for immigrant detainees, severely limiting the relationship between the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and local law enforcement, expanding financial aid and occupational licenses to “Dreamers” and undocumented immigrants, divesting from private detention centers, and establishing an Office of New Americans.

Workers now can count on basic labor standards that were sorely lacking for generations: paid sick days, a graduated increase to a $15 minimum wage, the first-in-the-nation guaranteed severance pay, the strongest anti-wage theft laws in the country, and an enforceable set of workplace safety protections for workers during the pandemic. New Jersey has also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families while increasing taxation on millionaires and corporations.

Still, this progress toward building a state where everyone can thrive will be obliterated by the pandemic’s toll on working-class people of color unless the Garden State takes significant action now. Similarly, our federal government must take swift action to reverse the Trump administration’s evisceration of worker protections and immigrant rights. We urge bold action from Trenton to Washington, D.C. to ensure we continue to build a recovery that ensures respect and dignity for all.