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Commentary: Make working families priority in recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought San Antonio and our nation to a pivotal point. History will remember what we choose to do next and what values we exemplify.

San Antonians are compassionate people. However, we will only truly become a compassionate city when our public policy is centered on its lifeblood — working families.

As our local officials take extraordinary steps to address the public health crisis created by COVID-19, they also need to move quickly to ensure San Antonio, America’s largest poor city, recovers from the devastating economic impacts of this virus. We need a recovery plan that prioritizes working families.

We cannot continue investing in policies that repeatedly fail working families and put profits first. We must invest in our people, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities. Without the workers, our economy collapses.

Our needs have not changed. Working families have always worked too hard for too little.

But now we are out of time.

COVID-19 reveals the weaknesses in our economic system and the people it does not protect: families who exist a paycheck away from financial ruin, hourly workers, the incarcerated, elderly and homeless — often black, Latino and working-class families that make up the majority of our city. San Antonio can do better for all of us.

How do we emerge from this crisis stronger, with a more resilient economy?

Thirty-nine percent of San Antonio’s working families lack paid sick leave. That’s 354,000 workers who can’t stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms without losing pay or risking job loss. Last year, a paid sick leave ordinance was due to take effect in San Antonio. However, this was stopped by a lawsuit filed by lobbying groups — Texas Restaurant Association, San Antonio Restaurant Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, and multiple staffing agencies.

Even now, these business interests and their team of lawyers continue blocking paid sick leave for San Antonio workers and undermine worker protections.

This is shortsighted, harmful to public health and detrimental to the bottom lines of restaurants. This lawsuit must be withdrawn immediately and the ordinance allowed to proceed. In light of this pandemic, the cruelty of this delay is even more astonishing.

What other steps can local officials take to demonstrate San Antonio’s compassion through policy?

With the beginning of a new month, thousands of people will struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. Before COVID-19, 33 families faced eviction daily in San Antonio. We need an indefinite moratorium on all foreclosure and eviction filings, and we join the national call for #RentZero and zeroing out rent and mortgages so all working families receive broad economic relief.

The recent moratorium on cutoffs of all vital utilities should include internet and phone service, and remain in place after the crisis. Residents whose utilities were shut off prior to the pandemic should have them reconnected.

All financial assistance should be provided regardless of immigration status.

Going forward, every city contract, tax break, development deal or aid of any kind to businesses should be conditional upon providing living wages and paid sick leave. No loopholes. No exceptions.

In recent weeks, county officials have arranged the release of roughly 700 people being held pretrial at the Bexar County jail. These were legally innocent people sitting in jail simply because they are too poor to pay bail. We could have done this before COVID-19. Bexar County must implement sweeping bail reform measures similar to those in Harris County. Local judges and the bail bond industry must also drop their opposition.

Public health care systems were already struggling with a lack of funding, personnel and equipment, and now they must prepare for an inevitable deluge of patients. This pandemic has further exposed our private health care system as an inhumane patchwork system designed to put profit first. “Medicare for All” is a viable solution, and our local leaders must support it.

Federal and state leadership continues to fail us by gambling with our lives and future on obscene corporate bailouts that have not helped working families time and again.

San Antonians know how to take care of ourselves, each other and our city. We need our local government to join us in building the compassionate city we are meant to become.

Michelle Tremillo is executive director of the Texas Organizing Project.

This op-ed was published April 3, 2020 in the San Antonio Express-News.