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EDITORIAL: Finding a way back to work for everyone

EDITORIAL: Finding a way back to work for everyone

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WHAT A difference a year makes! On Labor Day 2019, we were celebrating 13 months of labor force expansion in Virginia, with a record 4.3 million workers taking home a paycheck and unemployment at just 2.9 percent.

“These statistics show a healthy state economy with a still-growing professional and business sector, expanding health and education opportunities and robust tourism. Virginia’s economy is firing on all cylinders,” we commented at the time.

But as the old saying goes, life happens when you’re busy making other plans. And the coronavirus pandemic happened.

During the first part of this train-wreck of a year, unemployment in the commonwealth soared from 2.9 percent to 8 percent in July—higher than the 7.5 percent unemployment rate in Virginia at the height of the Great Recession in February 2010, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

“From July 2019 to July 2020, the VEC estimates that establishments in Virginia lost 284,100 jobs, or 7.0 percent. In July, the private sector recorded an over-the-year loss of 225,000 jobs, while employment in the public sector lost 59,100 jobs,” the VEC reported.

And the 8 percent figure represents a recovery of sorts: Unemployment in the commonwealth hit 11.2 percent in April at the height of the pandemic.

While most of the major industries in Virginia were adding workers last September, 10 out of 11 reported employment declines this year. “The only job gain occurred in construction, up 4,600 jobs (+2.3 percent),” the VEC report stated.

The leisure and hospitality industry was the hardest hit (-22.3 percent), followed by state and local government (-8.1 percent); education and health services (-6.9 percent); business and professional services (-4.8 percent); trade and transportation (-3.9 percent); manufacturing (-6.2 percent); finance (-2.6 percent); information (-4.7 percent); and mining (-7.8 percent).

The Fredericksburg region, which was until recently the fastest growing region in the commonwealth, was not spared. On this Labor Day, unemployment in the region remains high in the City of Fredericksburg (9.4 percent); Caroline County (8.3 percent); Spotsylvania County (7.7 percent); Stafford County (7.3 percent); and King George County (5.5 percent).

Behind those public statistics are thousands of private tragedies.

Climbing out of this unexpectedly deep financial hole will not be easy or quick. But Americans are resilient, and there are indications that slowly, but surely, the commonwealth is on its way to economic recovery. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond noted that “recent reports suggest the Virginia economy strengthened in July. Jobs were added, the unemployment rate fell, and the housing market appeared to strengthen.”

At this point, the No. 1 goal of public policy—both at the state and local level—should be to do whatever is necessary to help struggling businesses hire back employees who were laid off during the height of the pandemic.

But the General Assembly just did the opposite by killing a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, that would have shielded businesses that are diligently following state workplace safety rules from COVID-19 lawsuits.

“Right now, in order for us to have a functioning economy, we have to give people some certainty that they can open their business and not immediately get hit with lawsuits for an epidemic that’s nearly impossible to trace,” co-sponsor Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, told his colleagues. But they couldn’t agree on the specifics.

The dilemma is real: Workers should not have to risk their lives for a paycheck. But they won’t get a paycheck if business owners are afraid to hire them for fear of getting sued if they get sick with COVID-19, with no way to prove exactly where they caught it. And without a steady paycheck, those same workers will be doomed to poverty—and all the adverse health effects that go with it.

On this Labor Day, it’s up to state legislators—still meeting in special session to deal with this unprecedented health crisis—to go back to the drawing board and not adjourn until they find a mutually acceptable way to protect both workers and employers from the ravages of this terrible disease.

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From March to August, an additional 4,500 more Virginians died than would have been expected, an increase of 16 percent. You would naturally expect more deaths because of the pandemic, but of that 4,500 figure, only 52 percent were attributed to COVID-19 as an underlying cause or contributing factor.

Only 10 of Virginia’s public school divisions were included in Forbes’ list of the Best 100 Employers in Virginia for 2020, so it’s noteworthy that Spotsylvania County Public Schools (SCPS) was not only on the list, but was ranked in 37th place overall, and fourth of the 10 Virginia school systems that also made the list, including the much bigger school divisions in Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

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