As we work to get our region’s economy back on track, it’s about much more than just lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Three weeks after “reopening,” there are a record number of jobs open. The Washington Hospitality Association reports that restaurants and bars alone are down 80,000 employees. Businesses are offering higher-than-ever salaries, broader-than-ever benefits and employment perks, but many of our member businesses report that despite such efforts, prospective workers often aren’t even showing up for interviews.
With such an overwhelming labor shortage, it means many of our favorite businesses are not actually able to reopen. And there is no doubt that there are societal issues at work here, such as workers’ access to child care, especially in the summer. We also need our elected leaders to prioritize public safety. For inspiration, just look to New York City’s Democratic nominee, Eric Adams, who argues public safety is the prerequisite to prosperity.
To improve our economy, people must be confident that they will be safe and feel safe returning to work, whether it’s on the commute to and from the workplace or while on shift. This issue is especially acute in an area critical to our whole region’s recovery: Downtown Seattle is home to 55% of our city’s jobs and generates half of our region’s gross regional product.
The owners of Pioneer Square restaurant London Plane recently told local NPR station KNKX that people in crisis have negative interactions with customers eating outside “nearly every day.” They said their staff members are sometimes able to diffuse the situation on their own but sometimes could use assistance. When staff members call police for help, “They often don’t get a timely response.”
This example raises two challenges that the city of Seattle must address.
First, Seattle must act with urgency to provide help to people in crisis. It is wrong not to help those living unsheltered with a safe and secure place to come inside and that those who need behavioral health treatments go without. It is also wrong that due to insufficient actions to help people in crisis, employees at local businesses are by default forced to intervene in situations with which they have no training or resources. I talk to many local business owners who want their neighbors in need to have supports, and they want to see more from the city on a scale that matches the challenge. Actions taken recently by the city working with business to help people living in tents on Third Avenue downtown move to hotels and other shelter with services is a great place to start and should be expanded.
Second, Seattle must ensure reasonable response times. This past spring, Seattle Police reported that people calling 911 are waiting longer and longer for officers to show up. They aren’t meeting response-time targets for the most serious crimes, and there were 221 days when the police in certain precincts could not show up at all to lower-level complaints. The people working in our city deserve better. They must be assured that if their safety is at risk, police will respond. They must also be assured that leaders will enact critical police reforms, like determining that some situations are better served by someone other than a sworn officer responding. But 911 calls need responses, and city leaders must work with community members, businesses and police as partners in recovery.
Finally, business owners want action — now. Downtown Seattle, our region’s biggest job center, is still operating at just 20% capacity as crime continues to rise. We are anxious for a plan from elected leaders to address safety challenges well beyond this recovery period. A plan with goals and accountability measures built in. A plan that recognizes what this community is asking for: A crisis response system that includes deploying some services differently, true reforms and a responsive police force.
The pandemic challenged local businesses in unprecedented ways, forcing hundreds to close for good. Many others struggled through by getting creative — for example, switching entirely to takeout while still serving the community with free meals for health care workers. As we start to shift from response to recovery, it’s time to support local businesses as they seek to reopen or expand hours — including by protecting their workers’ safety and clearing major obstacles to attracting workers. Seattle needs a robust economic-recovery plan, and addressing public safety must be a keystone. We stand ready to partner with elected leaders and businesses on solutions that will bring workers back, and provide the stability and certainty needed for a truly equitable, inclusive and safe recovery.