The Urgency of Relief For American Workers

When it comes to emergency management, ‘speed trumps perfection.’

The economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak are starting to explode even faster than the number of cases being identified. While we don’t have national numbers yet, the early news from some states is truly alarming.

In New Jersey, 15,000 people applied for unemployment benefits on Monday, a twelvefold increase over normal levels. In Connecticut, nearly 8,000 applications arrived over the weekend, an eightfold increase over the norm. Rhode Island officials reported Tuesday a five-day rise in claims due to the coronavirus from 10 on March 11 to 6,282 on March 16.

More than 45,000 Ohio workers have applied for unemployment over the past week, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services told Sen. Rob Portman, a nearly sevenfold increase over the previous week…

According to an NPR/Marist poll conducted Thursday and Friday, 18 percent of households already reported someone being laid off or having hours reduced because of the coronavirus outbreak, with women hit harder (21 percent) than men (16 percent), and people who earn less than $50,000 hit harder (25 percent) than those earning $50,000 or more (14 percent).

“A coronavirus recession is inevitable,” said Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, in a blog post. He estimated that at least 3 million jobs will be lost by summer.

That is why, after passing a bill that included $8.3 billion to fight the spread of the virus, Congress is considering measures to shore up the economy and bring some needed relief to American workers.

After taking a recess over the weekend, Majority Leader McConnell said that the Senate would take up the bill passed by the House last week. As a reminder, here is what it included.

The legislation includes free coronavirus testing, up to three months of emergency paid leave benefits to all workers affected by the coronavirus, and could also include an 8 percentage point increase in the federal share of Medicaid payments to states, lawmakers and aides said…

The paid sick leave component of House Democrats’ plan would replace two-thirds of wages for most workers, up to a $4,000 a month plan. The proposal would extend eligibility for unemployment insurance. It is also expected to include about $1 billion in emergency appropriations to expand access to food security programs including food stamps, Meals on Wheels and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Once that is completed, McConnell said that Republicans would work with the White House on an additional stimulus package that could rise to $1 trillion. According to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, that package could include direct cash payments to American workers, as well as bailouts for businesses.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are preparing their own proposal.

Democrats in the Senate are proposing their own $750 billion package, which prioritizes workers and contains nary a mention of the airline industry.

“If we are going to follow up the House bill with another major economic stimulus package, which we must, our major focus cannot be based on bailing out airlines, cruises and other industries,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

At this point, the proposal garnering the most support from Democrats is the one put forward by Senators Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, and Sherrod Brown. It calls for immediate $2,000 payments to all adults and children in the US below a certain income threshold.

Under the plan, if the US is still in a public health emergency in July, Americans would get another $1,500 each. If the same is true in October, everyone would get another $1,000. If the public health emergency is over in either July or October when the Treasury secretary does his quarterly check-in, but unemployment has increased by a single point, the checks still go out. If unemployment rises by half a point, the checks are cut in half, but they still go out.

Signatories to this plan range from centrists like Bob Casey and Tim Kaine to liberals such as Tammy Baldwin and Kamala Harris.

That sets the stage for the partisan wrangling to take place over the third measure—with Republicans attempting to sweeten their bailouts with promises of cash to American workers. As McConnell and the White House put together their package prior to undertaking negotiations with Democrats, they are ensuring delays that would otherwise be unnecessary. The likely reason for that is that they are prioritizing getting bailouts to major corporations.

Of course, there is also the possibility of the corporate bailouts becoming “poison pills.” Based on what we know about McConnell, he would probably be happy to go into the 2020 election blaming Democrats for obstructing a bill that would have provided direct relief to American workers.

As we watch all of this unfold in the coming weeks, it might be helpful to keep in mind some advice from Dr. Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization. He was talking about slowing the growth of a pandemic, but it could also apply to efforts to put the brakes on a major recession.

Ryan said: “perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection…The greatest error is not to move.”

I was reminded of all of the criticism that has been leveled against the initial stimulus package passed by Democrats in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but Obama signed that one twenty-eight days after he was inaugurated, having garnered three votes from Republican Senators in order to overcome the sixty-vote barrier put in place by McConnell. Democrats knew that “speed trumps perfection” when it comes to emergency management.

The situation we face right now is equally alarming. Democrats already know how Republicans will play this one. What it will require from them is to negotiate on behalf of American workers wisely while recognizing that urgency is their primary responsibility.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.