After the Great Recession, We Failed the Public Sector. We Can't Make the Same Mistake Again | Opinion

It's no secret that America's public sector workforce has been decimated in recent years, the result of global economic crises, corporations seeking to boost profits by scooping up tax dollars, and a fundamental failure to recognize the importance of investing in public employees and the vital services they provide to our communities.

Public sector workers, including 180,000 represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), responded heroically to this pandemic. They put their lives at risk and jeopardized the health and well-being of their loved ones while working long hours as demand for emergency services escalated. Even today, they continue to go above the call of duty in the service of others.

Unfortunately, despite their heroic contributions throughout this unprecedented crisis, the pandemic has revealed how years of cutbacks have created gaping holes in the social safety net for workers across America. We have been hopeful that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, we might chart a different course than the one taken following the 2008 Great Recession, when some states and cities prioritized restoring their public sector workforce and many others did not.

Republicans in Congress and state legislatures, beholden to billionaires and Wall Street, saw the hardship working families faced as an opportunity to push their austerity agenda and squeeze profit from pain, privatizing and cutting public sector jobs.

These policies, coupled with the federal government's failure during the Great Recession of 2008 to provide robust financial support for states and localities, left America's public sector workforce substantially underfunded and understaffed. In fact, it was not until November 2019 that public sector employment recovered to July 2008 levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an immense amount of suffering all across the country, similar in some ways to the Great Recession. It has upended our daily lives and shuttered businesses for significant periods of time. Local governments in both red and blue states saw a substantial drop in tax revenue throughout 2020. As local revenues fell and demand for emergency services increased, public sector workers were once again on the chopping block. More than 1.3 million public sector jobs were cut nationwide. Women and people of color disproportionately held these positions.

Flight attendants, airline pilots and other aviation workers hold a protest organized by the Association of Flight Attendants urging the US Congress to pass a Covid-19 relief package and extend the Paycheck Support Program to save aviation jobs during a rally outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, President Biden and Congress included $350 billion in pandemic relief funding in the American Rescue Plan for state, local and tribal governments in order to jump-start their economic recovery. State and local governments have flexibility to decide how to best utilize this relief, and at the top of the list must be building back our public sector workforce. As Treasury Secretary Yellen has noted, the grave mistake our federal government made during the Great Recession— when cities and states were facing a similar budgetary crisis—was its failure to provide enough economic aid to help the public sector refill its ranks so that it could continue providing essential services and supporting communities across the country. We cannot afford to make that same mistake again.

Despite all of this, Republicans have shown that they will stop at nothing to gut the public sector, shamelessly arguing that states and cities now have enough funding and no longer need federal pandemic relief funds. You might have heard Republican Senators, including Mitch McConnell and Rick Scott, refer to this funding as a "Blue State Bailout" that will solely aid Democratic states.

This is all a bunch of nonsense. While it's true that revenues have rebounded in some localities, the fact remains that plenty of places in both red and blue states are still reeling economically from the pandemic and do not have the means to restore their public sector workforces. This reality has not stopped some legislators from presenting a false choice, advocating to divert pandemic relief funding for state and local governments to fund infrastructure projects.

Taking funds away from state and local governments when they need these resources most after a decade-plus of relentless cuts, would be remarkably shortsighted and economically irresponsible and only exacerbate the economic strife far too many workers continue to experience due to COVID-19.

We can't ignore the lessons from the Great Recession and repeat the same mistakes. Public sector workers showed during the pandemic that they are truly the backbone of this country, responsible for educating students, responding to medical emergencies in our neighborhoods, treating sick patients in hospitals, keeping offices functioning every day, and so much more.

We have a true, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally provide substantial resources to state and local governments and empower them to meet the needs of their constituents, instead of enacting more painful austerity measures. We must not waste this opportunity. Public sector workers deserve better.

Bob Menendez is a United States Senator representing New Jersey. Chris Shelton is the president of Communications Workers of America.

The views in this article are the writers' own.