In Search of Decency

Universal basic income will protect workers from coercion

By Diane Pagen

When a person loses a job, modern American society and its existing income aid programs require that you prove you deserve help to receive any support as you look for further employment. Being a human being with inherent value is not reason enough to gain access to such support. Our unemployment insurance program, one that each of us pays into, is guilty of this as well: access to these funds are dependent on the employer approving access to such benefits. Not surprisingly, many people who leave their jobs as a way of advocating for their own needs find getting Unemployment impossible. This is just one more reason that our nation needs a better alternative–one that is universal, guaranteed, and sufficient, and in which the help is not dictated by whether or not a person behaves a certain way or aligns with current political norms.

I was ultimately terminated from a job in February 2022, not because I had done my job poorly; I was terminated because I disagreed with their new policy of requiring COVID vaccinations of all employees.

I have been ten months without income from my job as well as no unemployment. New York State, where I live, has determined that those who lose their job due to non-vaccination have lost their job at their own fault. This means we are denied unemployment access. Though this decision may be philosophical and political, it is also clearly financial: I work for a school district that employs more than 100K people. Denying unemployment to myself and others like me saves millions of dollars, and sends the clear message to ordinary workers what happens to their career when they refuse to comply with an employer demand.

The overall process that my employer has created around this issue is dehumanizing. The city put us on unpaid administrative leave. If we took a temporary job during this time to help make ends meet, we would lose our standing and tenure position. We were also denied access to unemployment. This meant that while thousands of employees challenged the decision, we had no income of any kind.

Over these ten months, I have been deprived of my wages, of my workplace, my colleagues, and deprived of most assistance programs. With the financial hit, I have had to curtail everything that makes me who I am: my mental and emotional bandwidth has stretched thin; I don’t have the money to buy groceries for others, as I used to; my concentration is off; I am not as good a friend, neighbor or volunteer right now. Stress, anxiety and fear have taken over.

I am not writing this article to get into a debate about Covid vaccinations. For me, this experience has hit home on a very personal level the critical importance of unrestricted basic income. This hits right at the heart of our society’s willingness to have the government support employer coercion tactics against their employees.

What happens to the human condition and well being of a worker who is coerced into doing something they don’t wish to do? To do something they believe is harmful? Immoral? Something that scares them? The 1,740 fired government workers in NYC are not the only New Yorkers who have been harmed — many of my colleagues who complied out of fear of losing their income are angry and resentful. Many workers who complied to keep their jobs are feeling as abused as those who were fired. These resentments are being ignored in New York City. Left untreated, these resentments threaten the fabric of society.

Allowing an employer to demand compliance to new and changing demands poses significant potential problems. Those who decide what are acceptable new areas for compliance are generally those with great wealth, power, and influence. At any given time, the arbitrator of what is deemed right for employers (or society) may be swayed by financial interests, by promises of future reward. The best way to assure justice and behavior is to allow individual minds to decide how to act, free of coercion.

What if the compliance demanded were not to take a Covid vaccine, but something else? Take an antihistamine or sedative daily or get fired. Work 45 hours instead of 40. Get a vasectomy. Stay pregnant. Who decides whether an action is more important to the collective than the individual — enough so that it makes sense to force it on its members of society against their own will?

No one should have to comply, nor concede, nor fight to get income. We do not have an unconditional income transfer program in the United States yet. If a universal basic income were in place when my employer stopped paying me, those who disagreed with the coercive policies would have been negatively affected, but we would at least be able to keep the lights on, our kids fed, and a portion of our rent or mortgages paid. It would have recognized that we were humans deserving to have our basic needs covered.

Basic income that is unconditional and adequate allows for the freedom to turn down an employer’s demands, to object and express an alternative point of view free of fear of retaliation. When we allow for people to be destitute because they object to the coercive tactics of their employers, we are violating the rights that we hold dear.

Coercion is always wrong, even when the behavior it seeks to enforce is seen as right.

To the extent that a basic income guarantees protection against coercion, and the very existence of an income that is guaranteed to everyone, free of conditions and as a right, discourages the use of coercion, we must continue to fight to make it federal policy.

Diane Pagen is a social worker, co-founder of the Basic Income March, and longstanding UBI advocate.

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