Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

How the American Rescue Plan saved the public sector–and proved that investing in workers pays off

March 11, 2022, 12:55 PM UTC
U.S. President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office. The economic stimulus bill earmarked $350 billion for public services to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
MANDEL NGAN - AFP - Getty Images

When Shirley Thomas, a school custodian and member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)in Jacksonville, Florida, was furloughed from her job, bills piled up as she went without pay.

Then, help arrived. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) became law, and the $1,400 stimulus check that came with it meant Shirley could, in her words, put “everything back in the black.”

The ARP–the relief bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden one year ago today–was a lifeline for millions of public service workers like Shirley.

Throughout the pandemic, public service workers have stepped up with great courage to protect their communities. Health care workers continued to care for sick patients even when they didn’t have proper personal protective equipment. Corrections officers worked to keep inmates and staff safe even as COVID was ravaging prisons. School bus drivers and cafeteria workers continued to prepare and deliver meals to kids in need.

The rescue plan delivered $350 billion in badly needed aid to ensure that states, cities, counties, and towns were able to maintain these critical functions. Its effect was immediate: In Hawaii, for example, $2.2 billion in ARP aid enabled Gov. David Ige to call off a previous plan for thousands of furloughs and layoffs, allowing essential state services to continue uninterrupted.

Similar scenes played out across the country. Relief for childcare workers meant providers were able to keep their doors open. School funding made sure kids could get back in classrooms safely. Investments in public health have ensured a speedy rollout of the vaccine, which is helping to fast-track our nation’s economic recovery.

None of this would have happened without the steadfast work of AFSCME members, who came together to advocate for this relief package through our Fund the Front Lines campaign. From sanitation workers in Atlanta to respiratory therapists in Oregon, we spoke with one voice to demand that our elected officials invest in public services—and in the public service workers who keep our communities running.

But as important as this aid has been, we still face a growing crisis that started long before the pandemic and will only get worse if we fail to act. During the Great Recession, politicians answered the crisis with austerity. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers lost their jobs, with many others forced to accept concessions that cut pay and benefits. This mentality continued even as the economy rebounded. The result? It took until 2019 for public sector employment to return to 2008 levels. In that time, America had grown nearly 10%–so, the same number of public service workers were tasked with serving nearly 30 million more people.

Now, more than half of public sector workers report that they’re considering leaving their jobs, and the top reasons they cite are burnout and low pay. Unsafe conditions, high stress and other pandemic-related factors have turned challenging work into a full-blown crisis, with eight in 10 public employees reporting that short staffing is making their jobs harder.

The good news is we know how to prevent this burnout and create a public sector where workers thrive while they create clean, safe, healthy communities.

The ARP provides a model. Across the country, AFSCME members are negotiating to ensure that federal aid goes toward improving the quality of public services and rebuilding our public service workforce. Ohio state employees were able to secure a nine percent raise that is helping retain corrections officers who faced some of the most dangerous COVID outbreaks in the nation. Nebraska veterans homes also faced acute staffing shortages due to low pay and an overburdened workforce; but we negotiated historic raises that promise to reduce turnover, improve working conditions, and lead to better services for our veterans.

One year after President Biden’s leadership made a historic investment in public services, we’ve averted one crisis. But if we don’t act with determination and intention, the slow-rolling crisis of public sector resignations will be devastating.

The time is now to ease the burden on the everyday heroes who pick up the trash, maintain our roads, manage our parks, strengthen our schools–and so much more. They have answered the call and then some during this pandemic. Even before it started, they had been forced to endure short-sighted funding cuts.

Let’s give them the tools and resources they need to do their essential work. When we invest in the people who provide public services, our communities thrive.

Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.4 million public service workers.

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.