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labor ‘We’re Trying to Survive’: Workers Face Cuts as US Public Sector Lags in Recovery

Working in US public sector feels untenable for many amid lack of benefits, low pay and lack of general investment.

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Mopping, sweeping, waxing floors, trash removal, sanitizing, scrubbing bathrooms and cleaning student apartments.

For $10.65 an hour, Nelly Nunez and Pamala Greathouse have worked as janitorial custodians at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque through the pandemic as essential workers, facing extra workloads, understaffing and Covid-19 safety concerns, while struggling to make ends meet on low pay.

“We’re trying to survive and we’re living from paycheck to paycheck just to pay our bills and to stay above water,” said Greathouse. “Everything has gone up in pricing, groceries, gas, everything. With the cost of living rising as fast as it is, we’re still at the same pay rate.”

Nunez and Greathouse are far from alone. Workers in the public sector around the United States have faced drastic cuts and layoffs, leaving workers even more understaffed, underpaid and overworked through the Covid-19 pandemic than they were before. About 815,000 jobs have been lost in the American public sector since the start of the pandemic and job recovery in the public sector has lagged behind the private sector.

‘We’re trying to survive’: workers face cuts as US public sector lags in recovery

Working in US public sector feels untenable for many amid lack of benefits, low pay and lack of general investme

Mopping, sweeping, waxing floors, trash removal, sanitizing, scrubbing bathrooms and cleaning student apartments.

For $10.65 an hour, Nelly Nunez and Pamala Greathouse have worked as janitorial custodians at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque through the pandemic as essential workers, facing extra workloads, understaffing and Covid-19 safety concerns, while struggling to make ends meet on low pay.

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“We’re trying to survive and we’re living from paycheck to paycheck just to pay our bills and to stay above water,” said Greathouse. “Everything has gone up in pricing, groceries, gas, everything. With the cost of living rising as fast as it is, we’re still at the same pay rate.”

Nunez and Greathouse are far from alone. Workers in the public sector around the United States have faced drastic cuts and layoffs, leaving workers even more understaffed, underpaid and overworked through the Covid-19 pandemic than they were before. About 815,000 jobs have been lost in the American public sector since the start of the pandemic and job recovery in the public sector has lagged behind the private sector

“There’s a crisis in the public sector in this country in all public services,” said Margaret Cook, vice-president of CWA-PHEW (Communications Workers of America Public, Healthcare and Education Workers).

Local and state governments have made significant cuts in anticipation of budget shortfalls caused by Covid-19, but even as federal assistance has helped offset shortfalls, workers are still bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact in the form of increased workloads, lack of benefits, low pay and a lack of general investment in public services in favor of austerity and privatization.

For many, working in the public sector feels almost untenable.

Nunez, who has worked for 16 years at the public university in New Mexico, is charged for parking and pays for health insurance coverage, leaving her with little left to take care of herself and her family. “It’s not enough to make ends meet or support our families,” said Nunez. “Most people here have to work two jobs, because we can’t get by on working for the university alone.”

Cook said that local unions and workers are fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage and to pressure local and state governments to use federal aid to support and compensate workers in the public sector who have continued to keep public services running through the pandemic.

“Now is the time to make sure they’re compensated for the type of care and responsibility they hold,” said Cook. “No worker should make below $15 an hour. That is just the minimum threshold that we believe a worker should be able to work a full-time job and not rely on food stamps from the state if they work for the state.”

Louise Irizarry, 59, worked for eight years at Kennesaw State University, a public university in Georgia, as an administrative specialist in the student affairs department. She was one of several workers at the university who were laid off in late 2020 in anticipation of budget shortfalls, despite record student enrollment at the school and a decision to provide bonuses to all university workers shortly after the cuts, citing unanticipated funds.

Some of the lowest-paid workers in public higher education systems, who are disproportionately women and Black workers, have faced the most consistent and drastic layoffs and cuts through the pandemic.

When she was laid off, Irizarry was less than two years away from her pension vesting at the 10-year mark. Even though there have been hundreds of job openings at the university since the layoff, she has struggled to find a comparable position, though laidoff employees are supposed to receive priority in new hirings.

“I’ve lost my pension,” said Irizarry, who has only been able to find two part-time jobs with no benefits to replace the full-time job she lost. She is still trying to regain employment at the university, while her subsidized Cobra health insurance is due to expire soon.

“I have a chronic illness and to trying to get healthcare has been just impossible,” added Irizarry. “The university had opportunities where they had a chance to be able to fix this and make right by it and they haven’t.”

Other workers in the public sector who have kept their jobs through the pandemic have faced greater workloads, while struggling to care for sick family members and take care of children who have been in and out of remote learning as schools and daycare centers have either been shut down or have periodically closed for quarantines.

Kristen McManis works as an operator at a 24/7 distribution center for a utilities company owned by the city of Gainesville, Florida.

Through the pandemic she has worked hundreds of hours of overtime, while she and her coworkers have struggled to care for family and children. Family and medical leave was initially offered to employees, but then expired after workers were discouraged from using it. She had to donate her own personal leave time to coworkers who couldn’t access childcare or had to take care of sick family members.

“I’ve been donating a lot of my leads to my co-workers who have been sick, and they’ve exhausted all of their leaves. I’m constantly getting requests to donate my time to them. These are people that I care about,” said McManis, who has also struggled to see her family and protect at-risk family members from Covid, while working erratic schedules and through holidays.

Louise Ortiz has worked at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, operated by the state government in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for eight years. She makes $12.75 an hour and relies on Medicaid for health coverage because she can’t afford the insurance offered through her employer.

She continued to work during the pandemic while the museum was shut down, but received no extra compensation for the additional duties she took on, which included contact tracing, assisting the billing department and configuring a new computer system, even as much higher paid employees were doing the same work.

Last year, Ortiz was diagnosed with breast cancer and is still recovering, while working in-person at the museum.

“I can’t make ends meet. I can’t support my child. I can’t get an apartment for me and my daughter. I can’t survive. I’m in the process of trying to get a car so I can get another full-time job, because I need another full-time job in order to survive,” said Ortiz. “I go to work every day, I put in my 40 hours a week, I do what I’m supposed to do. I love my job. But it would be nice if I could get paid for it.”