How Coronavirus Lockdown Will Affect California's Economy
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every aspect of life in the United States now, and with that impact come some hard choices. Who gets financial help from the federal government and how much? How will doctors decide who gets treatment and who doesn't if hospital resources are insufficient to treat everybody who needs attention?
We're going to spend the next hour examining these and other dilemmas facing our government and millions of Americans right now. We're going to check in with a group of faith leaders around the country also to hear how they and their congregations are facing this crisis.
But we're going to begin our coverage this hour in California, where nearly 40 million residents are under a mandatory stay-at-home order. California is the world's fifth largest economy, so this lockdown is sure to be costly. Already this past week, there was a surge in unemployment claims in the state. Julie Su heads the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and she is with us now.
Secretary Su, thank you so much for joining us. I know you're really busy.
JULIE SU: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So your agency is in charge of enforcing labor laws in the state and ensuring workplace safety, too, and paid sick leave. You know, all of these things have become crucial during the emergency. Can I just ask you if you have a specific focus now? Is there a specific priority for you right now?
SU: Well, so the state is mobilizing every level of government to prepare for and respond to the spread of the virus. And so we're working on many fronts. I will say that the stay-at-home order does allow people who are doing essential services and critical infrastructure sector work to go to work. And so our job - my primary job as Labor Secretary is to make sure that those workers are protected, that their workplaces are healthy and safe.
That's people ranging from our medical professionals to janitors, who are doing cleaning, to farm workers, truckers, grocery workers and last-mile delivery drivers - so making sure that we have standards in place to protect their health and safety, which is intimately tied to the health and safety of the public. And also to make sure that we are providing timely and accurate provision of benefits like unemployment insurance, disability insurance, paid family leave.
SU: And there's also the challenge on the workforce side of making sure that we're connecting people who are now losing jobs to jobs that are in demand.
MARTIN: And that's an important point. I'm going to hold that thought for a minute, if you would. But just on the whole question of unemployment benefits for the moment, I mean, all over the country, there has been this surge of unemployment claims. And we've been hearing anecdotally that in some places, I mean, the system can't even handle it - that systems are crashing. How is the state handling this new influx of unemployment claims?
SU: So we are mobilizing our resources to make sure that we can handle them. For example, you know, the governor has waived the one-week waiting period so that people can get unemployment insurance for the first week that they're out of a job. We're also moving resources internally to ensure that the benefits are getting out there in a timely manner. In fact, many of the folks in our team are working right now as we speak to make sure the claims get out.
MARTIN: And I wanted to talk about gig workers for a minute here because, you know, California has been trying to advance some protections for gig workers. People understand what that means. For example, a law went into effect in January that would reclassify some gig workers as employees under some conditions. I know that that law is now being challenged by some tech companies like Uber and Lyft.
But, you know, California is known for entertainment. What about these workers? I don't think they would qualify under that law. Is there anything you could do to help them?
SU: Sure. So this issue is much bigger than one piece of legislation. Misclassification of workers - meaning people who should be employees but were called independent contractors - have been a longstanding problem. It affects, you know, many, many industries.
And the issue there is that you have people who were trying to cut corners or cut costs and therefore take employees who were entitled to labor law protections like minimum wage, overtime, a meal and rest break and pull them out of those protections - to remove that floor and make them independent contractors.
The reality is that if you are a misclassified employee - meaning you were called an independent contractor, but you should have been an employee - you can still apply for unemployment insurance.
SU: And so we're trying to make sure that people know about that right. But obviously, those employers who were breaking that law are putting - we now see the additional strain on the system when that happens...
SU: ...Right? Because they haven't paid into unemployment insurance.
MARTIN: OK. I'm sure we'll talk again, and I do thank you for taking the time. But before I let you go, I can't let you go without asking, how are you doing?
SU: OK. I mean, it's a challenge, but it's both a privilege also to really try to meet this moment, as the governor says, and make sure that we're doing right by the people of California.
MARTIN: That's Julie Su. She heads the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
Secretary Su, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.
SU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.