Members of SEIU 1199 campaign for relief. Andy Hart / SEIU 1199
A healthcare workers union, SEIU 1199, rallies outside the State Capitol last July as the pandemic raged. They asked for providing personal protection equipment to frontline workers, holding private sectors such as nursing homes accountable and strict social distancing. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

For the past year frontline health care workers stood in the way of danger, working throughout the pandemic in nursing homes, home care, substance-abuse counseling and helping children in need. Yet, somehow, health care workers and their patients are forgotten in Connecticut’s proposed budget, freezing or even cutting spending for workers and services urgently needed by the state’s most fragile populations.

Two years ago Gov. Ned Lamont successfully championed bills for a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave. Since then, he appears to have lost his moral compass. He celebrated the wage increase for hardworking people as a way to “help lift them out of poverty, combat persistent pay disparities between races and genders, and stimulate our economy.” Lamont was right on all counts, but the job is far from finished.

The triple crises of COVID-19, economic recession, and growing opioid addiction, raise the need for government action to a new level of urgency in Connecticut. One in four children is at risk of hunger. Unemployment doubled in 2020. Black and Latino men suffer 50% more unemployment than white men. Blacks and Latinos suffer COVID-19 mortality rates twice those of whites. Since 2018, accidental overdose deaths rose by 33%. Of the 7,600 coronavirus fatalities, over half were nursing home residents.

Frontline caregivers are physically and emotionally exhausted, having faced constant fear of contracting the virus, working longer hours as their co-workers fell ill. With the virus spiking around them, they tended to the suffering of others – even when they lacked personal protective gear. Now 22 members of District 1199 have lost their lives to COVID-19 and countless other mourn family members lost to a virus they brought home.

It’s time to shift our priorities. Lamont’s budget underfunds caregivers and critical services yet continues to privilege the 17 Greenwich billionaires who became $3.8 billion wealthier since last March. In these difficult times, the state must tax the ultrawealthy to pay their fair share. We must build back better by rewarding long-term care workers with a minimum wage of $20 per hour, affordable health insurance, retirement benefits, and providing public services that create wealth and wellness equitably in our Black and brown communities.

The first step is reforming our regressive tax system. The latest data shows families making under $48,000 annually pay an effective tax rate of 24%. Households making $13.1 million pay just over 6%. That this race and class bias persists in a time of pandemic and recession is appalling. Legislators, faith leaders and community organizations are proposing legislation to reduce taxes on low- and middle-income people, while raising nearly $3 billion in revenue by taxing incomes above $500,000. Certainly, those with the wealth to comfortably shield themselves and their families from exposure to COVID-19 can be expected to pay a fair share to support those who must leave home and risk infection every day to keep our state moving.

A second step is to craft an urgent “Justice Budget” addressing basic needs for all the people of Connecticut. Prioritize the use of state Medicaid funds to increase services for the disabled, elderly, and chronically ill, along with improving the wages and benefits of their caregivers. This includes funding public sector employment, which has long been the key means of economic advancement for Black and Latino workers. It is no coincidence that as the state’s workforce shrank over the last decade the racial wealth gap expanded.

Third, we must invest in safety net protections like Medicaid expansion and affordable housing. These are vital to deal with the consequences of structural racism and poverty. Investments in Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and substance abuse programs like mobile crisis and housing supports for individuals with mental illness will save lives.

The suffering of the past year has not been shared. Connecticut’s top 1% income earners bring home over $3 million annually. That’s 41 times the median household income, and over 65 times that of Black and Latino households. By most measures, we live in the most unequal state in the nation in household incomes and life-changing opportunities.

We often hear our state is “broke.” This is false. What is broken is the courage and clarity necessary to lead in the direction of racial and economic justice. We ask our legislative leaders and Gov. Lamont to lead with the same courage and humanity asked of essential workers during the pandemic — the courage to do what is right in lifting poor and working people out of poverty.

Rob Baril is President of District 1199, SEIU in Meriden. The Rev. Rodney Wade is pastor of the  Long Hill Bible Church in Waterbury.

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