To reactivate the economy after the crisis the COVID-19 pandemic caused in Puerto Rico it will be necessary to know the profile of those who lost their jobs due to the emergency and design a viable economic development plan that includes them in the labor market in the new framework of opportunities associated with reconstruction.
Due to the pandemic, the island has the second-highest unemployment rate among U.S. jurisdictions, and that requires coordinated strategies seeking to support and save those sectors facing the greatest risk of collapse, such as micro, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), which generate 42 percent of private-sector jobs.
A recent report by the Oversight Board warns that this sector not only needs a grants and loans program, but also technical assistance for skill development to help them adapt to new forms of business and work.
Economists have also warned that the SME sector is at risk of permanent large-scale closure, which would keep thousands of workers, who had been temporarily laid-off, unemployed. They also anticipate that large companies in important sectors, such as the tourism industry, would have to operate under restrictions or would be closed for longer periods.
Far from letting such projections discourage us, it becomes important to identify the actions needed to overcome them. How will the government, employers, and workers build a solid economy, capable of creating job opportunities and sustainable development?
On one hand, there are significant efforts underway to bring manufacturing back to the island as the United States seems to be seeking less dependence on global supply chains in the face of the pandemic experience.
On the other hand, the reconstruction process allows us to identify those jobs that will be in greatest demand, such as planning, engineering, science, community development, and construction-related jobs. Also, social distancing measures imposed by the coronavirus have made it possible to re-dimension the contribution of digital technologies and online work to organizations' productivity.
This period should be used as an opportunity to coordinate the development of skills in future greatest demand.
According to the United States Department of Labor, the current unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is close to 21 percent, surpassed only by Nevada with almost 23 percent. According to that report, only last week 29,556 people claimed regular unemployment insurance and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which was the most requested.
International Labor Organization (ILO) reports state that health and social services, education, and agriculture, among others, will be the sectors less impacted by the pandemic.
The organization has also defined four pillars of action, some of which agree with the Board's report. The first is to stimulate the economy and jobs through
“active fiscal policy, accommodative monetary policies, and lending and financial support to specific sectors including the health sector.” They also recommend supporting businesses, employment, and incomes by
extending social protection for all and implementing employment retention measures, which have already been addressed by both the local and federal governments.
The third line of action includes protecting workers in the workplace,
strengthening OSH measures and adapting work arrangements (such as teleworking) as well as preventing discrimination and exclusion and providing “health access for all,” among others. The fourth pillar the ILO recommends is “using social dialogue between government, workers, and employers to find solutions and to strengthen the capacity and resilience of employers’ and workers’ organizations.”
All this can shape an economic development plan that identifies the role each sector will play - tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, local entrepreneurship - with enforceable and measurable strategies.
And at the same time, Puerto Rico should also design an education and training plan to ensure the island has the professionals and workers the coming decades will require.