Worker
COVID Economy

Can California make the post-COVID economy more equal?

In a CalMatters and Milken Institute event, experts explored the economic disparities highlighted by the pandemic and how state policies can foster a more equitable post-COVID future of work.

Telework. Affordable college. A system to pay parents to care for their toddlers and workers to train for better jobs. A high school education that teaches young adults how to start their own business. These ideas emerged as potentially bipartisan solutions to job displacement and inequality in a CalMatters and Milken Institute virtual panel Tuesday about the post-COVID future of work in California.

Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California says that if the state’s immigrant communities are undercounted, “it would be entirely possible for us to lose a seat in Congress.” Photo courtesy of PPIC
Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California. Photo courtesy of PPIC

“We haven’t had an equitable recovery over the past 40 years,” Sarah Bohn, vice president of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, said during the event. “That’s the reality that we need to think about breaking the mold.”

Against a backdrop of unprecedented state cash and a flurry of legislative proposals to shape an equitable recovery, the event was the first in a series exploring the Future of Work in California.

Moderated by CalMatters, the session explored the disparities highlighted by the pandemic and how state policies can foster a more equitable future of work with four panelists: Bohn; Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat; Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable; and Aleida Ramirez, a low-wage worker and single mom from Concord.

Here are some of the event’s main takeaways:

The ugly side of California’s unequal economy

The panelists agreed that the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore a painful truth about California’s economy: The state’s growing inequality has life-or-death consequences in a post-COVID future of work.

Bohn noted that in 2019, the bottom 20% of earners made less than $40,000, compared to the top 20% making more than $200,000. Wages for low workers were just beginning to make gains as the labor market tightened.

“The reality was that many families across the state had barely recovered from the Great Recession before the pandemic hit this last year,” she said.


Lapsley noted that for the past decade, there’s been a loss of middle-class jobs, reflected in the state’s population decline last year and the loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census. Today, there’s an extreme economy full of inequality; restaurants and tourism took the brunt of the pandemic recession while high-wage jobs in Silicon Valley continue to thrive.

“We can’t mistake a $75 billion surplus for necessarily a healthy economy,” Laplsey said.

Gonzalez echoed the sentiment.

“We love the revenue that we got from making billionaires, but come on,” she said. “When do we ask those billionaires to share the revenue with the people doing the work, not just giving it to government to spend on social service programs?”

One worker-turned-business owner’s experience

CONCORD, CA – Aleida Ramirez sits at her home in Concord, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo for Bay Area News Group
CONCORD, CA – Aleida Ramirez sits at her home in Concord, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo for Bay Area News Group

Ramirez exemplified the acute challenges facing low-wage single mothers. To keep a roof over the heads of her 21-year-old nephew and 11-year-old daughter in the Bay Area, she worked as a restaurant manager, in a lice clinic and as an Uber driver before the pandemic decimated her jobs. Forced to stay home to help her daughter attend virtual school, she burned through her savings to cover rent. Ramirez picked up a few hours delivering food for Instacart and regularly fasted to save money.

Finally, frustrated by the state unemployment department’s inability to process her claim, she worked with an artisan to start her own business selling handcrafted garden decor.

“It changed my mentality,” Ramirez said, “from being where I was to now being able to provide an opportunity for somebody else.”

To gather materials and save on the cost of living, Ramirez moves her family to Tijuana for several weeks each month. She’s raised the idea of living in Mexico permanently, but her daughter refuses.

“She keeps saying, ‘Yes, it’s going to be tough, but we can’t leave home,’” Ramirez said.

Panelists on the post-COVID future of work emphasized how low-wage workers have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living and housing in California.

While California lawmakers had been working for years to increase the minimum wage, pay equity and paid family leave before the pandemic, Gonzalez said that serious inequality remains.

“We are the best in the nation when it comes to the difference between white women and white men. However, if you look at Latinas, we’re the worst in the nation,” the lawmaker said. “Something is going wrong here. What happens now?”

A shift towards telework, but not for everybody

Robert Lapsley, California Business Roundtable, speaks in opposition to SB 37, a bill that seeks to limit CEO pay to 20 times that of their average worker
Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Lapsley emphasized one positive impact of the pandemic: The “monumental shift” towards telework.

“We should be able to keep 20% of all the cars off the road on a given day when people come back to work because employers have real-life experience in understanding and accepting telework,” Lapsley said.

That could allow Silicon Valley companies to relocate and invest in other parts of the state, like the Central Valley, he said. He said that while some high-profile companies have left, most businesses and venture capital have remained.

But Ramirez pointed out that telework “doesn’t apply to all Californians.” Not to her and not to workers in agriculture, food service and infrastructure.

Referring to the potential for an influx of money from President Biden’s infrastructure plan, Gonzalez said, “If you want good equitable jobs for people of color, they’re gonna have to be union jobs.”

A post-COVID future of work

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez represents the 80th Assembly District in San Diego.

Panelists emphasized the key role that high school and college education need to play going forward in teaching professional skills.

“Particularly in high school, we should be able to teach people how to start a business,” Lapsley said. Ramirez agreed, adding that her daughter is “more eager to sell her candy than learning history that keeps repeating itself.”

So did Gonzalez. Young adults should be learning “how to read a paycheck, understanding your rights under labor laws…how to ride public transit.”

Bohn and Gonzalez highlighted the need for more apprenticeship programs that allow people to get well-paying jobs in the trades, regardless of whether they have a college degree.

‘Full employment’ economy

Asked by an audience member for revolutionary solutions to address inequality directly, Gonzalez posed the idea of a “full employment” economy, in which the state pays parents to stay home with their children for the first few years of life, teenagers to stay in school in underserved communities, trade workers to do apprenticeships and more childcare workers to free up more parents to work.

“Let’s ensure that there’s opportunity for communities like mine through a full employment kind of model and not just a social service model,” Gonzalez said.