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Interim Study on COVID-Related Employment Issues Offers Policy Recommendations for Next Crisis

Matt Trotter

Unemployment issues aside, the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for thousands of Oklahomans.

People have lost jobs that supported their families and are unable to find anything that pays more than half their former salary. Others are picking up as many extra jobs as they can, no matter the risk of infection, to make up for a partner’s pay cut. Some are struggling with the mental health impacts and languishing on suicide watches for weeks.

Those are some of the stories Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-Oklahoma City) got ahead of an interim study this week on employment issues related to the coronavirus.

"I know it’ll shock some of you, but I say this as a Democrat: I don’t believe there’s a government solution for everything. Pause for laughter," Bennett said. "What I do believe, especially after listening to folks across the state is that public policy can make or break a family if the circumstances are just right."

Bennett said some of the policies lawmakers should consider to make the next crisis more bearable include restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit so low-income families have more money to spend on essentials, exploring ways to offset childcare costs, and establishing a paid leave benefit program so people who get sick or must take time off to care for family don’t lose their job — and often their health insurance with it.

Nicole Poindexter with Oklahoma Policy Institute explained during Bennett’s interim study many Oklahomans who need paid leave the most don’t work for employers that must offer it. Several states have set up employee-paid programs. Money comes out of their paycheck, costing most employers nothing.

Poindexter said workers with paid leave have better morale and are less likely to need public benefits.

"Employees that have paid medical leave can stay home and take care of their families in times of need. They don’t need to apply for SNAP or TANF or Section 8 or any of those programs because they have the money to pay the bills they need to pay," Poindexter said.

Many Oklahoma employers don’t even meet the threshold for unpaid leave required under federal law.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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