In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic struck a uniquely precarious workforce. The shock has exposed and widened rifts in our two-tiered labor market—between workers with stable jobs and the newly unemployed, between those who can work from home and those who can’t, and between high-income workers and those struggling to make ends meet.

Before the pandemic, U.S. labor markets were historically tight—what labor experts called a “now or never moment” to improve job quality and worker mobility. Today, the problems are accelerating, and the stakes are even higher. COVID-19 job losses hit low-wage workers the hardest, and these workers are having the hardest time getting back on their feet. Meanwhile, the pandemic is rapidly shifting consumer preferences and company behaviors, with demand for digital services surging. But few unemployed workers have the time or resources to reskill and find new work on their own. Many low-wage workers may see less demand for their labor in the long run—meaning lower wages and decreasing job quality for those who can find work, and long-term unemployment for those who can’t.

The pandemic is an urgent reminder of what long-term labor trends have been illustrating for years: Low-wage workers need better pathways into decent jobs, and from shrinking occupations to the jobs of tomorrow. Policymakers face a dual imperative: to facilitate safe reemployment as soon as possible, even as COVID-19 continues to surge in many parts of the country, while also helping low-wage workers on the journey to jobs with dignity, stability, and a fair shot at economic mobility. While the risk of mass unemployment has already spurred large public expenditures, more funding and efforts are needed to ensure opportunity reaches those who need it the most.

Read the full article about low-wage workers' options during COVID-19 at Brookings.