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Q&A: Sen. Rebecca Saldaña lays out the economic recovery she wants to see in Washington State

Senator Rebecca Saldaña represents the 37th Legislative District. She serves as the Deputy Majority Leader and Vice Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Most recently, Saldaña was appointed to the bipartisan Senate long-term economic recovery committee.

With expertise in areas including worker and immigrant advocacy, transit equity, racial justice, civic engagement, and affordable housing, it seems that Saldaña’s presence in the committee will broaden its scope. How will legislators define “recovery” and what opportunities does an economic recovery effort offer? I called Saldaña recently to ask her these questions and a few more.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Michael Goldberg: You will be a member on the Senate long-term economic recovery committee. Under the umbrella of long-term economic recovery, what policy areas in particular would you like to dive into on the committee? 

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña: I was just listening to a young person say that already in their life there’s been 9/11, the Great Recession, and now this. Part of what I’d like to see in this committee is the opportunity to look at lessons from history. I would hope this committee looks at what we did in 2008 with the recession and looking further back to the Great Depression to see how policies were shaped there that are helping people in Washington now. Also, what are the things we need to do to set us up for the next pandemic? I think we know, between viruses and climate, that we’re going to need to set ourselves up to be more resilient.

Another piece that is very critical to me is recognizing that not everyone started at the same place before COVID-19. We have growing inequality based on where people live and/or the color of their skin, which impacts health outcomes in Washington State. So, looking at how we reduce inequality through policy going forward is the second broad focus I’d like to see.

As far as particulars, I want to make sure we’re taking care of essential workers in the short-term and long-term. We need to make sure they have access to the equipment they need and that their wages reflect the value they hold as essential workers. We know our hospitality and service sectors have been hit hard. We’ve also heard about the workforce shortages in certain industries like construction and transportation. I’m interesting in seeing if there’s an opportunity, and we’ve been working around this idea for a couple years, to use career-connected learning and paid apprenticeships as a way to connect a young workforce to demand.” 

MG: Shifting to immigration because I know that’s been a policy focus for you, the roughly 8 million undocumented workers in this country do not have access to any of the unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act. Apart from the humanitarian issue that poses, some predict it will have negative public health impacts because if someone is undocumented and they’re experiencing symptoms, they know there is no safety net to catch them and they might very well make the rational economic decision to keep working. What can be done on the state level to compensate for where the CARES Act falls short?

SRS: We have a Congress that has been either unwilling or unable to address the fact that we have a global economy. We have NAFTA which allows our goods to go back and forth, but we don’t allow the workforce to go back and forth. More generally, we just have a broken immigration system that hasn’t been touched for 35 years. We have generations of people living here who are still in a precarious situation. On top of that, the current administration has taken an aggressive approach to the idea that if immigrants utilize services, a pathway to citizenship won’t be available to them. That’s created a lot of fear and confusion. 

In Washington State, we have a paid leave program which is accessible to anyone employed. You can access that program whether the federal government has given you documents or not. We have Apple Health which allows families and pregnant women to have access to health care. So, I think we’ve done what we can in Washington State. With COVID, we have a cash disaster assistance program administered under DSHS which is accessible regardless of status. Unfortunately it’s a one time thing, but it is a resource available to anyone in Washington. We’re also looking at food assistance programs. 

On this issue, I also think it’s critical we’re pushing our tests into community clinics, public health clinics, and making sure we are not attaching any fees or additional hospital costs to people coming in for COVID tests.” 

MG: As far as reopening, it seems as though the conversation has been inflected with more and more partisanship in recent weeks. Both sides have been vocal about their perspective. Rather than sounding off on specific plans, can you just talk me through why your priorities are what they are in this conversation?

SRS: I want us to go back to business. I see our small business struggling and I want to make sure people have real choices and safety. My husband’s business was considered an essential business and yet he didn’t know if he had the PPE or protocols in place to be safe, so he closed for five weeks until he had everything set up before he opened. I have lots of family who are in the third phase and struggling. My kids have not seen their grandparents since the day I returned from session and took over homeschool and childcare. 

My challenge is, we have workers designated as essential workers but instead of treating them as essential we’re treating them as sacrificial. Even today, they do not have the proper PPE, they do not have the proper protocols in place in their workplaces and living situations. I want to make sure we are allowing public health to inform, not dictate, but inform the kind of decisions we’re making. I don’t think that our economy was necessarily working for a lot of Washigntonians before COVID-19. I think it would benefit all of us to take a pause and think through how we build our businesses to offer great products and services, but also recognize that there are very vulnerable people in our communities. For a lot of these people, things can’t simply go back to the way they were before.”

MG: Picking up on your point about the economy not working for people even before the pandemic, there’s a sentiment out there that this crisis has laid bare or at least highlighted a lot of longstanding inequities. You also mentioned earlier the need to plan ahead for our next pandemic. Do you think the Legislature can be a body that spends more time looking ahead rather than simply reacting to crises as they unfold?

SRS: I am hopeful. Where I feel most optimistic, and where I’ll be putting my energy, is in transportation. We have an unsustainable revenue stream right now along with major crises with the culverts, pollution, congestion, and more issues which COVID has changed dramatically.

Our economy runs on two highways: internet and infrastructure. We need to show where the disparities are in terms of people’s access to high quality internet. We also need to reconsider how we think about plans to address congestion if more people transition to working from home after the pandemic. That is a place where we have opportunities for bipartisan work. 

If we as a Legislature can take some leadership, that will make our state more resilient. If we do this, we’ll be able to address pollution and congestion while freeing up our systems for the right kind of commerce, as well as getting things, people and ideas where they need to be when they need to be there.”

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