Safeguarding Workers and Our Economy from the Coronavirus -- Part II

Katie Tracy

March 23, 2020

In my previous post, I explored five essential elements of an effective response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. They included closure of all nonessential businesses, paid sick leave and family medical leave, health and safety standards for infectious diseases, hazard pay, and workers' compensation. Here are five more things we need to protect workers and our economy from the crisis.

Universal Basic Income: To help prevent economic collapse, the federal government should provide a minimum monthly wage to all U.S. workers while the COVID-19 emergency continues. Suggested dollar amounts have ranged from $500 to $2,000 per adult and child, but the result should be no less than $2,000 per individual per month to help families sustain rent and mortgage payments, prescriptions, health insurance premiums, food costs, and other household expenses until the COVID-19 crisis ends.

A March 19 Republican proposal, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), would create a tiered rebate with the maximum one-time payment of $1,200 per individual and $500 per child. Under this proposal, the full payout is given to individuals with an adjusted gross income under $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers), and it phases out until AGI reaches $99,000 ($198,000 for joint filers). This one-time payment is too low to cover all individuals in need of assistance and fails to address the significant challenges many families are facing.

Health Insurance: For any worker laid off due to COVID-19, the federal government should cover the cost of extending health insurance through COBRA. Additionally, the federal government and states should begin a special open enrollment period immediately for uninsured individuals. Maryland is among the states that is opening enrollment for a special period (through April 15) to allow individuals to apply for coverage through the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. No one, whether previously employed or not, should have to forego testing and treatment for COVID-19 because of their inability to pay.

Unemployment Insurance: Workers who suffer from job loss or job reductions due to COVID-19 should have immediate access to their state’s unemployment insurance benefits. The FFCRA provides states with additional funds for expanding eligibility requirements, so states should take advantage of this immediately. Some states had already begun to expand eligibility requirements prior to the law’s passage. According to Sanchin Pandya of Workplace Prof Blog, Washington State is now including workers affected by COVID-19 in its definition of “standby workers.” Pandya further notes that Ohio’s law is expanded so that applicants don’t need to be actively seeking work to qualify if they were “requested by a medical professional, local health authority, or employer to be isolated or quarantined as a consequence of COVID-19 even if not actually diagnosed....” All states should follow this lead and expand unemployment insurance to workers affected by this crisis. While expanding unemployment insurance benefits will certainly put significant additional pressure on states to process claims, this should not be a reason for refusing to extend eligibility. Additionally, the federal government should provide more financial assistance to states for expanding unemployment insurance in the next stimulus bill.

Free Childcare for Emergency Workers: Several states have expanded childcare for emergency workers who have children out of school or daycare, which is an important step to ensure emergency workers don’t have to choose between helping the ill and caring for their own children. Yet the definition of “emergency worker” is too narrow in some states, only applying to health care workers, law enforcement, and public health employees. Some states, however, including Minnesota and Vermont, have broadened the definition to include grocery clerks as emergency workers. Every state should follow suit and provide free childcare for all of our essential workers.

Debt Payment Reprieve: Congress should consider providing a reprieve from all consumer debt, including mortgage payments, federal student loan payments, credit cards, and the like, until the crisis subsides. House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters sent a memo to all House Democrats on March 18 urging suspension of all consumer debt, and we may see legislation to this effect introduced in the near term. Coupled with this, all states must institute no-eviction policies until the national and state emergencies expire to ensure renters aren’t kicked out of their homes during the crisis; some states have already taken action.

With regard to student loans, the president’s announcement that he would eliminate student loan interest doesn’t prove as useful as a full postponement of student loan payments since it wouldn’t change a borrower’s total monthly payment, but instead would apply the payment to principal (reducing overall payback in the long-term). Trump’s announcement on March 20 that borrowers with federal student loans can suspend payments for 60 days is closer to hitting the mark. He claims there is more to come, so hopefully he will extend the reprieve until the national emergency is lifted. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have called for cancelling all student loan debt, an idea that should remain on the table even if not included in the next relief package.

These ideas are certainly not an exhaustive list of measures our lawmakers should consider to protect workers, communities, and our economy. Additionally, each of these ideas has pros and cons that deserve careful consideration with input from affected stakeholders. However, instituting these measures now would go a long way toward promoting the goal of social distancing, flattening the curve, and maintaining stability.

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