A few years ago, I was walking down the hallway in the hospital when one of the housekeeping employees asked me if I would give her an opinion about something. Of course, I said yes, and she proceeded to tell me about a personal health issue.
“Well, it is possible that what you are describing is serious,” I said. “I do think you should talk to your primary care doctor about this.”
“Well, I don’t have health insurance.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I was told all hospital employees have health insurance.”
“Oh, I used to have health insurance.” The woman then explained how she wasn’t actually a hospital employee any more, because the hospital had outsourced her job. She had the same duties as before, in the same building, but worked for a different company that had contracted with the hospital to provide housekeeping services. So she still had a job, in fact essentially the same job, but the new company had cut her benefits to increase its profits. She once had a job that gave her some control over her future, but now, through no fault of her own, that same job left her uninsured and barely able to get by.
Now we just had a “great” national jobs report, one that was so positive that the President tweeted the results early and potentially affected the stock market. But numbers of jobs is not the same as quality of jobs. We should not accept that working fulltime, or even more, is not enough for many families to live on and prepare for a future. We should not accept that so many people are forced to live from paycheck to paycheck, only one unexpected bill away from serious financial danger. And this is a national problem, not just limited to East Tennessee. Of course, we must recognize that the job quality problem is particularly severe in our region; Tennessee has the highest per capita rate of minimum wage jobs in America.
People in East Tennessee need higher quality jobs so they can have a future and realistic opportunities to fulfill their dreams, not just live paycheck to paycheck.
So what can we do?
First, we need a stronger healthcare system so businesses will know that their employees will have the health they need to excel. For example, we need to say “yes” to the Medicaid expansion dollars (like Virginia recently did) that are waiting for Tennessee to accept and use to make people healthier and hospitals stronger. Tennessee is the number two state in hospital closures per capita, so problems are severe. Admittedly, this is a state issue, as well as a federal one, but I’m going to vote for a governor and state representatives who commit to accepting these federal dollars. And then, as your Congressman, I’m going to work to make sure the federal government holds up its end of the bargain.
Second, we need to fix problems that scare employers away from starting or expanding businesses in our region. A massive problem we need to tackle immediately is the opioid epidemic. Businesses want sober employees, and the opioid epidemic discourages businesses from expanding or relocating to our region since they fear a shortage of high quality employees. Businesses also fear the extra medical costs from illnesses that come along with addiction.
Third, we need to help workers of all ages acquire and maintain the skills needed to get and keep high quality jobs. This means helping our educational institutions, so they can provide the training needed to flourish in the economy of the future. This is college for some but it would be trade schools and apprenticeships for other future employees.
Finally, we need to make sure we take advantage of the many unique strengths in our region. I’ve said before, “What’s good for the environment is good for the economy in East Tennessee.” We can promote ecotourism and agritourism to bring outside dollars into our beautiful area.
I’m glad that people who want jobs are getting them, but let’s make sure our citizens have opportunities for the kind of jobs that help our citizens build their futures and achieve their dreams.