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Why a Rotting Green Bay Boardwalk May Help Solve America’s Jobs Crisis

WASHINGTON — The governor of Pennsylvania wants to hire unemployed workers to help the state track the spread of the coronavirus in the fall.

City Council members in Austin, Texas, voted to pay people to help with projects like preparing land for fire season.

And Green Bay, Wis., hopes to pay the out-of-work to fix a decades-old rotted boardwalk in a major recreation area.

Across the country, state and local officials are considering ways to directly hire their out-of-work constituents, hoping that they can pay them to clean up parks, assist in conservation efforts and form the backbone of the public health response to the virus.

The programs so far are likely to allow for only a small number of jobs, in some cases just a handful. But local officials say they are hopeful the idea can persuade other areas to try similar efforts and, more important, elicit additional funding from Congress to support local job creation.

The effort is aimed at helping communities deal with an unemployment crisis more severe than what the nation faced at the worst moment of the Great Depression. Tens of million of workers have lost their jobs since mid-March, when the pandemic forced consumers into their homes and shut down most businesses. New unemployment claims have topped one million for 13 straight weeks.

So far, lawmakers and governors have mostly pushed for policies that will ensure Americans can go back to the jobs they held before the pandemic. The federal government allocated $660 billion for forgivable loans to businesses that agreed to keep workers on the payroll. Republican lawmakers have said they are interested in providing bonuses to people who return to work in lieu of extending expanded unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on July 31. And states have pushed to quickly reopen workplaces so that employees can regain a paycheck.

But overall unemployment remains high, and experts estimate that a large percentage of layoffs caused by the virus-related lockdowns could become permanent the longer the pandemic persists, as businesses fail to attract the number of consumers they did before or shut down entirely.

In some states and cities, one emerging answer to the growing jobless problem is simple: Hire those workers directly, sometimes using federal funds.

When the City of Green Bay received almost $600,000 in funding from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed this year, it decided to spend $136,000 on a jobs program to address projects in the 2,500 acres of land managed by its parks department.

“We worked very closely with our parks department director to designate some of the things that we could put people to work on immediately,” said Eric Genrich, the city’s mayor.

The program will be able to employ roughly 20 people full time and more in the event that the jobs are part time.

Credit…Ben Brewer for The New York Times

A wildlife sanctuary in Green Bay has a wooden boardwalk built 20 years ago with boards that are rotting out. Mountain-bike trails need to be groomed. The city’s wildlife sanctuary is struggling with an infestation of garlic mustard, an invasive plant.

Last month, the Austin City Council approved a resolution to create a program that will pay unemployed residents to work on conservation projects.

“What I love about the way that we’re approaching this is that it’s not only about the immediate but it’s a program that can evolve over time,” said Alison Alter, the Council member who proposed the idea. “We already have interest from our county in potentially engaging with us.”

Austin officials believe they can use the money they obtained through the stimulus package to fund work on private land, like preparing for wildfire season, but they hope Congress will clarify what funds can be used for projects on public property.

Other governments have moved to directly employ workers doing urgent public health work directly related to the pandemic.


Credit…Bob Ford/Erie Times-News, via Associated Press

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has said he will create a Civilian Coronavirus Corps to employ some of the state’s unemployed people doing contact tracing, the intensive process of mapping out the virus’s spread in order to contain it. Mr. Wolf has provided few details about the program, but he has said he hopes the federal government will pay for it. His office declined to comment further.

The efforts come as state and local governments are confronting their own potential unemployment crisis. With higher health costs and lower tax revenue, some cities and states have furloughed or laid off workers. The National League of Cities has estimated that up to a million public sector jobs may be at risk.

In April, Pennsylvania stopped paying thousands of employees who could not telecommute, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Austin has a hiring freeze, an aide to Ms. Alter said. In early June, Mr. Genrich said Green Bay had so far avoided laying off or furloughing any city workers.

But with the pandemic continuing longer than many had expected, local leaders have asked Congress to step in and fill the gap in revenue left by falling tax receipts.

A group of Democrats in the New York Legislature, for example, have proposed a work program for roles in public health, conservation and clean energy. The administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would consider only proposals that did not take funding away “from other critical” needs, a spokesman for the state’s budget agency said in a statement.

The proposals call to mind — and in some cases are directly inspired by — the jobs programs that defined the New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Works Projects Administration, for example, employed roughly 8.5 million Americans over eight years, according to one 1946 estimate.

Another program that employed young men in wilderness jobs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, has inspired many of the local officials creating jobs programs to respond to the pandemic. In Green Bay, the program shares a name: the Green Bay Conservation Corps.

There are more modern parallels to the current proposals. In the recession after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Hawaii authorized a program that paid unemployed workers to help eliminate an invasive plant, miconia; some program participants went on to full-time jobs in conservation.

“They loved it,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, who was then in the State Legislature. He added that some workers had declined to participate, staying on unemployment benefits instead.


Credit…Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Legislation recently introduced by Mr. Schatz would fund jobs programs throughout the country, including in conservation and public health. Other members of Congress have proposed creating a federal contact tracing corps or an expansion of environmental programs, as well.

“If there’s one thing that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on, it’s that the best social program is a good job,” Mr. Schatz said. “This is a proven model.”

Economists on the left have called for a more significant intervention by guaranteeing every American a job, and they are so far unimpressed by piecemeal proposals.

“We need to be thinking bigger, bolder,” said Pavlina Tcherneva, a professor at Bard College and a supporter of a jobs guarantee. “Twenty people planting trees in one town is not going to cut it.”


Credit…Ben Brewer for The New York Times

But the idea of broad funding for a jobs program has yet to gain traction at the federal level. Instead, lawmakers have focused on efforts to encourage businesses to retain employees or bonuses that would be given to employees going back to work.

Mr. Genrich acknowledged that his program, which can employ 20 people full time, was “obviously very modest” compared with “the scale of the crisis we’re facing.”

“But we think this is an important response to take to enable a few folks to be productively employed, to participate in something larger than themselves, connect with other people and improve the city of Green Bay,” he said.

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Federal Workers Profit From Tobacco and Oil, Even If They Don’t Want To

Many people who work for the Office of the Surgeon General have exposure to tobacco stocks. At the Environmental Protection Agency, scientists make money when polluters do well. And Justice Department lawyers who keep weapons off the streets stake some of their net worth on retailers that sell guns.

All these federal workers share the same 401(k)-like investment vehicle known as the Thrift Savings Plan. And despite years of effort, they still have no mutual funds on the menu that would allow them to put retirement money into stocks without profiting from industries that some find objectionable.

The T.S.P. is a monster, with $632 billion in employee savings from 5,677,989 participants as of Dec. 31. More than 49,620 of them have balances greater than $1 million. The biggest balance is $7,395,476.29. (If that’s you, please get in touch! I’d love to write about how you did it.)

That means the savings plan is ripe with trendsetting potential. According to Morningstar, $20.6 billion moved into funds focused on environmental, social and governance — or E.S.G. — issues last year. If around 3 percent of the plan’s balances could follow a similar path, the rolling river of dollars would equal that figure all by itself.

Some federal employees wish the savings plan had given them the chance to move their money years ago. “We’re in favor of taking the full step of allowing a fossil-free fund to be included,” said Nicole Cantello, a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents over 900 E.P.A. employees in Chicago and nearby states. “We feel it’s crucial.”

But they aren’t going to have access to any such option for at least a few more years, and the reasons offer something of a preview for any individuals who want to shake up the plans at their own workplace.

Every retirement plan has at least one decision maker who picks some investments and excludes everything else. To get an E.S.G. fund added to your plan, you have to persuade those decision makers, which isn’t always easy. And in the case of the Thrift Savings Plan, that panel is Congress.

In many ways, the federal government had figured out how to build a good workplace retirement savings plan long before many employers in the private sector. The plan is cheap — we should all have retirement accounts with such low costs — and tracks index funds, which tend to do better than most actively managed funds over time. But Congress hasn’t gotten on board with E.S.G. investing, even though many surveys show that younger investors, in particular, would like more access to those options.

Meanwhile, some of the people who work hardest in service to their fellow Americans are forced to expose their retirement savings to the very things they believe they are protecting us from, at least if they want the money in their plan to track stocks. That’s because the index funds that the T.S.P. mirrors own everything in a particular market sector, say all 500 of the biggest companies in the United States by market capitalization. If you want to make money from that sector in the T.S.P., you have to take the bad companies with the good, however you define each term.

I asked around at the surgeon general’s office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about tobacco stocks. No one in a position of power would comment or return my calls or emails. But I did hear from two spokeswomen, who sent me identical one-sentence statements. They both pointed out the obvious (individuals in the T.S.P. can’t own individual stocks) and dodged my questions about overall employee sentiment about tobacco industry exposure.

There is another solution in the works for government employees: a mutual-fund window. This mechanism doesn’t replace any existing funds; instead, it allows plan participants onto an investment platform where they can choose from most any mutual fund, including hundreds of E.S.G. offerings.

Congress told the savings plan’s board in 2009 that it could offer a window, but progress soon stalled. “The stock market was in free fall, and everyone was scared witless,” said Kim Weaver, a T.S.P. spokeswoman.

The market rebounded in the first half of the 2010s, and federal employees and various advocacy groups started making their feelings known. By 2015, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board’s executive director at the time, Greg Long, was ready to recommend a change. “As the clamor of the voices swell, it will be increasingly difficult to defend the core fund menu,” he wrote in a memo to his overseers.

They agreed with him. The beauty of a fund window is that it doesn’t take anything away from anyone. Moreover, the only thing its availability endorses is the idea of more choice. Federal employees can bet on energy stocks via a mutual fund or shun them as they wish, or just stick with the exposure to the stock indexes that is already part of the plan.

Even so, prying the mutual fund window open is taking quite a while. Congress has pushed several other big T.S.P. initiatives to the front of the line, and it will probably be at least two years before participants will get to climb through that window and see what the world of mutual funds looks like on the other side.

What remains to be seen is how many of them will actually climb through.

Many employers that work with Vanguard offer similar windows, and in 2017, only 1 percent of participants used them. Eight percent of the entities offering this option didn’t get a single employee taking them up on it. Fidelity reports similar figures: Just 2.7 percent of participants use the window.

Why the low adoption rate? Some of it is inertia. Workplace retirement plan participants often set their asset allocation and just forget it, leaving it alone for years or decades. Even for people who are inclined to pick mutual funds more in line with their values, figuring out which ones to select is complicated. Analysis paralysis sets in.

That’s why adding even a single E.S.G. fund to the T.S.P. could make a big difference. Fidelity reports that when there is such a fund on employers’ fund menus, 9.2 percent of participants invest at least something in it.

Even a partial governmental embrace of socially conscious investing would be a boon to other workers who wanted such an option: The T.S.P. is a beacon of sorts, and the retirement plan decision makers at other employers pay careful attention to how it operates and how its participants respond.

Even though the federal government is not out front on E.S.G. offerings, you can still make the case for them to your employer. You could point out, for example, that fossil fuel-free funds haven’t hurt anyone, given that energy stocks have barely budged for a decade, radically underperforming the overall stock market (and pulling down index funds that include them). And just this week, BlackRock announced that it was abandoning coal wherever it could. (And thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to appeal to all of Congress for change on this front.)

What you do with your retirement money says more than a little about who you are and what you stand for. Federal employees should be able to make sure their financial goals align with their professional objectives. That money represents power, and though the opening of the window remains a couple years off, civil servants will eventually have more than they do now.