(This is the text of the “Faith in Action” column by Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, for the September 2020 edition of the Catholic Standard newspaper.)
America’s celebration of labor and the worker goes back to the late 1800s as the nation was transitioning to more of an industrial economy. In 1887, Oregon became the first state with an official public holiday called Labor Day, and seven years later it became a federal holiday.
The Church joins the celebration as a way of honoring workers and giving us an opportunity to reflect upon that great gift of labor and all that we do. As the son of a carpenter and a carpenter himself, Jesus knew the value of work, building, and creating. Two thousand years later, the Church continues to honor the way we work.
This Labor Day comes amid unprecedented challenges for workers and employers. In a few short months, many jobs were eliminated or changed amid efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. People who started the year gainfully employed lost their jobs, were furloughed for an extended period, or had their hours cut back. Those blessed to have jobs face added stress with concerns over the virus, heightened restrictions and balancing family life with the closure of schools.
Labor Day 2020 takes on a greater importance with so many people out of work. The latest numbers show 30 million people in our country are receiving unemployment benefits, which is staggering. The Washington area is faring a little better than the nation, but the June unemployment rate still more than doubled over last year to 8.4%. With more than six million people in our area, that’s still a huge number.
If one out of 12 people in our beloved city are unemployed, chances are you are one of them or know someone looking for a job. If you count the people you see in the grocery store, walking in your neighborhood, or sitting in the pews, you realize how many in our Church and our community are struggling.
Whether jobs have been lost or cut back, less income makes it harder for people to support themselves and their families, pay their rent or mortgage, and take care of life’s basic needs.
In 1891, around the same time that laborers were recognized with holidays, Pope Leo XIII issued a seminal encyclical titled Rerum Novarum, which you can think of as roughly “The New Way We Work.” It was so important that it is sometimes called the Magna Carta of Catholic social teaching.
As parts of the world were transitioning from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, more and more factories were established. Pope Leo noticed early on that while factory owners prospered, many people – especially women and children – were not receiving fair and honest wages for their work.
Rerum Novarum said, “To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation.” It called for a number of things, including fair wages, safe working conditions, and the ability of workers to organize. It challenged those in the emerging industrial economy to treat everyone fairly and equally. It also celebrated the gift of work that God gives us, and this became one of the principles of social justice in which the Church declared everyone has a right to work.
In 2020, we face a historic challenge to that right. The pandemic arrived, people stayed at home, and the economy changed. Many people lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
In addition to workers, I also think of business owners who have been forced to let beloved employees go as they fight to survive. Many small businesses and service businesses like restaurants have had to close. I saw one projection that about half of all businesses in our country that have closed will not reopen. The pandemic affects not just workers but employers who pay fair wages and have supported their employees for years.
Everyone is suffering, and everyone’s situation is changing in ways we couldn’t imagine six months ago. I see it personally, and our Catholic Charities’ staff sees it even more so as they work with those struggling to get by without a job. Unemployment payments from the CARES Act and state payments have been a big help to many, but as we wait to see if more assistance will be provided, I worry that more people will endure hardships.
From my perspective, we risk facing a tsunami of problems in homelessness, unemployment, mental health, and just meeting basic human needs like food and clothing. We all hope for ways to support those in need, and we all hope for a swift end to the pandemic and rebuilding of our economy.
With Labor Day 2020 fraught with unique and significant challenges, I suggest that we all spend extra time in prayer amid the long weekend, the sales, and the back-to-school activities. If you have a job, thank God. Pray for all who have lost the gift of work and desperately want to be productive again. Pray for those who have recently come out of college and seek employment in this troubled economy. Pray for those with children desperately trying to support their families. Pray for those overwhelmed by the increased demands of work, school and childcare.
Labor is noble and can help us build our world and God’s kingdom. This year, with it taken away for so many, may we see God’s gift of work with renewed appreciation, and may we do all we can to help those without work who cannot support and care for their families.
I join my prayers with yours, and I also thank God for all who have stepped forward to help those in need through many donations to Catholic Charities. I have been overwhelmed by the love and generosity of so many, and it fills me with great hope that we can meet these challenges together as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
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