Too little, too late COVID aid bill may pass today
Because of Republican opposition led by GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the coronavirus aid bill will not include the $1,200 checks included in the last one. There was late word Wednesday that Senator Sanders may have succeeded in forcing Congress to add the $1200 stimulus checks for all Americans. | Bill O'Leary/AP

WASHINGTON—Today, as California accepted shipments of tens of thousands of extra body bags in which to place its dead, a very stripped-down package of coronavirus aid, we are told, is finally moving ahead in Congress.

Lawmakers are rushing to finish their business so they can go home until the New Year. For all too many Americans, meanwhile, going home is not an option. Home, for them, was lost because of the inability of the Trump administration to properly manage the coronavirus crisis.

But there are problems ahead, both in how much is allotted and who would get it—and, Unite Here pointed out, who got past aid and didn’t deserve it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses of Congress unveiled two pieces of coronavirus-related legislation. The larger one, worth $748 billion, which they all agreed on, included $300 weekly federal unemployment checks from Jan. 1 through April 30.

That money would top off regular state jobless benefits to workers who still qualify for them, just as prior $600 weekly checks did. For those whose state aid ran out or who legally can’t seek regular jobless aid—such as “independent contractors,” farm workers, home health care workers, and “gig economy” workers—the $300 would stand alone.

But there are no one-time $1,200 checks for all adults and $500 per kid, as there were in the biggest prior aid bill, the Cares Act, approved in March. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt.,  threatened to hold up everything unless those checks are included, too.

“As a result of the pandemic, tens of millions of Americans are facing economic desperation,” Sanders said.  “They can’t afford to pay their rent and face eviction, they can’t afford to go to the doctor, they can’t afford to feed their children and they are going deeper and deeper into debt.

“Congress cannot go home…until we pass legislation which provides a $1,200 direct payment to working-class adults, $2,400 for couples, and a $500 payment to their children. This is what Democrats and Republicans did unanimously in March through the Cares Act. This is what we have to do today.”

May not be going home

They may not be going home anyway. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced on Dec. 15 lawmakers would not leave town until they approved a coronavirus aid package.

But there’s also no money in the big bill for state and local governments, which have seen their revenues tank since the coronavirus-caused business closures produced a depression that drove joblessness up over 20% at one point.

The smaller $160 billion measure is in return for a two-year version of McConnell’s business bonanza: Exempting virtually all firms from lawsuits under coronavirus aid laws, and most labor laws, even if they don’t protect workers and consumers from exposure to the sometimes fatal plague.

Senate Democrats, both Democratic-leaning Senate independents, and Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John E. Kennedy of Louisiana support the state and local aid and the Democrats and independents, at least, aren’t budging. Without it, state and local governments will have to fire even more police, Fire Fighters, aid workers, and nurses—even as those groups must aid pandemic victims.

And trading the state (60%) and local (40%) money for the lawsuit ban, including banning suits when firms break labor laws, is a non-starter, said Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry and other speakers at a telephone press conference against McConnell’s scheme.

The larger measure also would extend a student loan repayment moratorium through April 30 and a ban on evictions and mortgage foreclosures through the end of January.

K-12 schools would get $54 billion for anti-virus measures so students forced into Zoom and distance learning by the coronavirus pandemic could eventually come back to class, while colleges would get $20 billion. Governors would get $7.5 billion in extra money for hardest-hit schools, but one-third of that must go to private schools.

Amtrak ($1 billion), mass transit ($15 billion), and the Postal Service (another $10 billion line of credit, without federal conditions) would benefit. So would airline workers.

The Payroll Support Program, which the Association of Flight Attendants pushed for and got earlier this year, ended on August 31, and the carriers have since fired thousands of workers. It’ll start again on Jan. 1 and run through March 31, a summary fact sheet on the bigger economic aid bill said. Politico reported it would get $17 billion, and the fact sheet said the money would go directly to workers.

“Flight attendants were promised imminent relief when furloughs began Oct. 1,” AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said on Dec 15. “The stress and strain put on people who can’t imagine why ‘overwhelming support’ doesn’t turn into real relief has made the hardship and loss during this pandemic all the more painful. All we need is a vote to save lives and livelihoods. Leadership needs to bring this bipartisan package to a vote as soon as possible.”

Includes money to help states

The bigger money bill would include $6 billion to states for developing and distributing coronavirus vaccines and their use, plus $7 billion for coronavirus testing and tracing. Of that sum, $2 billion would go to nursing homes, whose residents and workers are at high risk for coronavirus illness and death.

Those sums, plus the aid to workers, recognize the coronavirus pandemic—which as of 4 p.m. on Dec. 15 has killed 302,294 people, among the 16.64 million who have tested positive and caused the economic depression which produced the need for the aid in the first place.

Businesses would get another $300 billion through the Payroll Protection Program, this time with safeguards, such as limiting the size of eligible individual companies’ workforces. That’s a congressional attempt to fix problems in the PPP program. Companies got those “forgivable” loans if they kept workers on.

But Unite Here is blowing the whistle on the PPP. It released an analysis showing five Omni Hotels, in New Haven, Conn., Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Providence, R.I., took $15 million in PPP loans but have not rehired 80% of their workers, who are all Unite Here members. The Providence, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh hotels are still closed.

“The failure of these hotels to rehire their employees has financially harmed our members and created great uncertainty for them and their families. So far, we have not received commitments from Omni to use the loans to fully rehire the workers we represent,” Unite Here’s Carlos Aramayo wrote to the Small Business Administration and the Treasury, which jointly run the loan program.

And buried in the fact sheet about the larger measure is that of the total of $908 billion combined, $429 billion (43%) is unused money from the $3 trillion Cares Act.

“Food banks are overwhelmed with requests, small businesses are being forced to shut their doors again, we are on the verge of a devastating housing crisis and millions of Americans still find themselves unemployed,” explained the lead crafter of the two measures, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va.

Manchin called the measures “a compromise that will carry the American people through April 1st to ensure our healthcare crisis doesn’t become an economic catastrophe.” By then, lawmakers expect but did not say, that new Democratic President Joe Biden will have submitted a further aid package.

Union leaders had a mixed reaction to the economic aid package, but they’re still dead set against McConnell’s business bonanza scheme, even though Manchin cut it from five years to two, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2020.

Outrageous and immoral

“It’s outrageous and immoral but not surprising,” SEIU President Henry told the telephone press conference against McConnell’s scheme, assembled by Public Citizen. That group’s communications director, Derrick Robinson, noted public protest has stopped McConnell’s bonanza since he first floated the idea six months ago. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, later crafted it into the wide-ranging lawsuit ban.

Instead, Henry declared, lawmakers must “protect the workers who are keeping us safe, healthy, and fed during this crisis.” SEIU includes many of the “essential” workers, such as nurses, janitors, and sanitation workers, forced to toil at increased coronavirus risk to themselves and their families. Those workers have disproportionately sickened and died and are also disproportionately workers of color.

Nelson agreed while saying the aid package is grudging.

“Tens of millions of Americans are on the brink of disaster and we won’t make it to the New Year without emergency federal aid. This package is not enough for recovery, but it will keep us from total disaster until a real recovery plan can be put in place,” she explained.

“Americans have been waiting seven long months for the Senate to provide COVID-19 relief,” the Teamsters tweeted, using the official name for the coronavirus. “The Senate should not go on vacation until they pass comprehensive aid. @senatemajldr: Our states, cities, towns, and schools can’t wait around for you to do your job. #FundtheFrontLines,” it said.

Then it demanded citizen action to put pressure on lawmakers.

“Evictions Food insecurity Losing health care Snowy, icy roads Dirty water 9-1-1 operators laid off Trash in the streets Winter is coming. Congress must #FundtheFrontLines so we have the public services we need to beat this pandemic. ACT NOW: Call 1-888-981-9704,” the union’s second tweet said.


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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