AFL-CIO urges senators to OK ‘Families First’ coronavirus aid bill
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka | Alex Brandon/AP

WASHINGTON —The AFL-CIO urged the Senate to approve the “Families First” coronavirus aid bill, even while identifying some holes in the $8.3 billion legislation.

And, for once, the Senate’s ruling Republicans appeared to be actually paying attention to workers’ needs – even if some objected to paid family leave.

The federation urged approval of the measure, HR6201, even as U.S. coronavirus cases rose, in one week, from just under 1,000 to just over 6,000 and deaths hit 118 as of the morning of March 18. Experts warned of tens of thousands more people becoming ill.

The March 17 letter from federation Legislative Director Bill Samuel came as the Trump administration prepared a larger, follow-up measure worth between $850 billion and $1 trillion in anticipation of an enormous economic hit from the virus, officially labelled COVID-19.

The top feature would be $1,000 checks to everyone. The next day, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., a Democratic presidential hopeful, proposed $2,000 monthly checks until the coronavirus crisis ends.

The checks could help offset the huge hit to workers, their jobs and the economy. Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told GOP senators the coronavirus pandemic and measures to curtail it, notably business closures, could send U.S. joblessness to 20%, aides who asked not to be named told The Washington Post. It’s now 3.5%.

By comparison, U.S. joblessness peaked in the depths of the Great Depression at 25%. And the government sent out checks to everyone in that crash’s deep days, too.

“The labor movement is mobilizing to protect front-line workers who are combating the disease every day and millions more workers who may be exposed to the virus,” Samuel said in urging quick approval of the House-passed measure.

“While this package is not a complete response to the crisis, it is an urgent measure that will get necessary assistance to working people facing serious health and financial risks,” he added. One key feature: 14 days of paid emergency sick leave to most, but not all, coronavirus-infected workers.

“HR6201 will encourage working people to seek testing for infection by making tests free for most people covered by employment-based insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid…This is a crucial step to contain the spread of the virus. Subsequent legislation should focus on ensuring out-of-pocket costs are waived for screening visits, outpatient treatment, hospitalization, and treatment in other inpatient settings.”

But it also has some holes, Samuel said. One is limiting the emergency paid leave to companies employing between 50-500 people. Smaller firms would not be covered and large ones were expected to shoulder the sick leave burden themselves.

And “health care workers and first responders” would not get paid sick and family leave for coronavirus cases, Samuel pointed out. Dozens of those workers have already tested positive for the coronavirus, and experts warn home health care aides and other health care workers who toil outside institutional settings are even more at risk.

A third hole is Trump resistance to a mandate, pushed first by National Nurses United, and then by the AFL-CIO, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration impose a temporary emergency standard requiring hospitals and nursing homes to implement protection plans for workers, and to resume work on a permanent airborne virus worker protection standard.

Under Obama-era chief Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist, OSHA both pushed the health care firms and hospitals to craft such protection plans and started to work on a permanent standard. Adhering to his pro-corporate “deregulation” mantra, and company lobbying, Trump stopped it.

Despite those flaws, the federation strongly supported the legislation.

“HR6201 also takes steps to improve access to food by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)” – food stamps – “the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the school lunch program. Recognizing the current federal unemployment insurance program will not provide sufficient support for states to meet the needs of workers, the package provides additional funding for states,’ Samuel added.

Looking forward to the larger aid package, Samuel urged lawmakers “to develop and implement plans on a large scale to mitigate, if not prevent, an increasingly likely economic slowdown.” But it shouldn’t include Trump’s then-proposed payroll tax cut, he added. “There are other more targeted and fairer proposals that would provide greater economic stimulus,” he said.

“Cutting the payroll tax would be of no benefit to laid-off workers,” Samuel said. His letter did not mention the $1,000 checks, which Mnuchin unveiled later. “Since the virus does not discriminate in terms of who it touches, it is critical that our overall response be as inclusive as possible, helping everyone who may be affected, regardless of their immigration status.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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