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Opinion Pieces

Our economy is on the road to recovery, and workers are in the driver’s seat

Originally Published in The Hill

If there is anything last week’s jobs report illustrates, it’s that our economy is on the right track. With 943,000 jobs added last month — the second consecutive month above 900,000 — the United States has regained 75 percent of the jobs lost from the pandemic, a testament to the Biden administration’s successful national vaccination campaign and the American Rescue Plan’s direct investments in working families, small businesses, and local governments. Amid continued progress, even in the face of ongoing concerns about the Delta variant, we cannot lose sight of who is in the driver’s seat of this monumental recovery — America’s workers.

That’s why our offices partnered to create a first-of-its-kind Worker’s Economy Reportwhich is designed to serve as a shortcut guide to understanding how American workers are front and center in our economic recovery.

This fact is evident not only in the sharp increase in job numbers over the past several months but also in workers’ wages. 

Last week, data from the Labor Department showed that for the first time in U.S. history, restaurant and grocery store workers were earning an average of $15 an hour. Around four out of five American workers are earning $15 an hour or more, a significant increase since 2014 when just three in five workers earned that much.

American workers are bargaining for higher wages, and businesses are not just listening — they’re hiring.  Last month marked the lowest level of unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic, and since President Biden took office, unemployment claims have been cut in half as businesses continue to hire thousands of workers each week.

Even the hardest-hit industries — like restaurants and bars–are making a comeback. 

Despite accounting for less than 1 in 10 jobs before the pandemic, the restaurant industry — which is predominantly made up of small businesses — accounted for about one in four jobs lost. Today, retail sales for restaurants and bars have skyrocketed back to pre-pandemic levels, and total sales reached an all-time high of $70.6 billion in June. To keep up with those record-breaking retail sales, employment in leisure and hospitality grew by 380,000 in July.

Overall, strong jobs numbers, wage growth, and retails sales are driving strong economic growth. Gross domestic product, or GDP, grew 6.5 percent in the second quarter of 2021 —  the second consecutive quarter with growth above 6 percent — bringing our economy above its pre-pandemic peak. The largest contributor to GDP growth was increased consumer spending, or what people are spending on goods and services as sectors of the economy can safely reopen.

These are the economic indicators that better reflect how American workers are faring. Gone are the days of a president touting stock market gains during a pandemic, while job growth and wage gains remain anemic. 

One year after the worst economic downturn on record, American wages are up, job growth is up, economic growth is up, consumer spending is up, and unemployment is down. And it’s being driven not by the wealthiest 1 percent or profits from the nation’s billion-dollar corporations, but by American workers. 

It is critical for the House and Senate to move full steam ahead with an infrastructure bill that builds back better and a reconciliation bill that makes meaningful investments in the care economy and climate action. But Congress alone cannot maintain this economic momentum. It remains essential that every American who can get vaccinated does get vaccinated in order to protect against the coronavirus and ensure our cities, restaurants, and small businesses can remain safely open.

It is by keeping workers—and not the top 1 percent — in the driver’s seat that we can promote growth that remains strong, stable, and broadly shared.

Marie Newman represents Illinois’ 3rd District and Don Beyer represents Virginia’s 8th District and is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.