As Congress bickers over another coronavirus relief package, an Associated Press article this week laid out this nation’s economic woes. Unemployment in June stood at 11.1% nationwide, and it’s roughly the same in Lancaster County. Schools are making plans to open with no idea of how they’ll cover the costs of COVID-19 safety measures. Hospitals face severe revenue losses. A $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package passed in March offered funding for individuals, businesses and state and local governments. As part of that package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — CARES — Act, unemployed Americans received a $600 weekly supplement to their unemployment benefits. That supplement will end Friday.
The pandemic has stolen the livelihoods of countless small business owners and workers. More than 150,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 4.4 million Americans have been infected.
And infectious disease experts tell us we’re still in the first wave of coronavirus infection in the U.S. Who knows what the fall and winter will bring, when we’ll be battling influenza and COVID-19 at the same time?
Millions of Americans are facing difficult, even dire, circumstances. But in Washington, D.C., lawmakers are sparring over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s $1 trillion proposal and the Democratic-led House’s $3 trillion proposal.
Among the points of contention: liability protection for businesses, health care providers and schools, which McConnell says is nonnegotiable; and how large an unemployment supplement should be. Democrats are insisting upon keeping up the soon-expiring $600-per-week benefit, while McConnell’s proposal offers a less generous $200 per week until Sept. 30, when unemployment benefits would be capped at 70% of a worker’s regular weekly pay.
The most conservative members of Congress are balking at the very notion of passing another stimulus package at all.
We’d suggest they go without their $174,000 congressional salaries until this pandemic ends, and see how they fare. (Some of them will be just fine, having come to Congress with personal fortunes. But not all.)
Talking recently to business owners in Harrisburg, Sen. Pat Toomey expressed concern about extending the supplemental unemployment benefit. According to an CBS21 report, he said it would be “misguided” to do so.
He also dismissed the need for another round of economic stimulus checks to Americans. “It was a massive amount of money, not at all targeted to the people who really needed it,” he said. “So, I’m a skeptic about whether we should do another round of that.”
Once again, we feel compelled to point out that when it came to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Pennsylvania’s junior senator had no hesitation, no reservations.
“I am convinced that when we pass this legislation and it is signed into law, the federal budget deficits will shrink as a result of this legislation,” he said as a vote on that bill neared.
His declaration would be proven to be emphatically wrong. The federal budget deficit ballooned.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, however, the results weren’t all bad — corporations saved $150 billion in taxes in 2018 alone, and stock prices soared.
And few benefited more than the wealthier members of Congress, that nonprofit watchdog found: “While they sold the bill as a package of business and middle-class tax cuts that would not help the wealthy, the cuts likely saved members of Congress hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes collectively, while the corporate tax cut hiked the value of their holdings.”
But please, do tell us again, that hurting Americans don’t need $600 a week in supplemental unemployment aid during a health and economic crisis that painfully persists.
Republicans are advocating for a lesser unemployment benefit because they say they don’t want to incentivize workers who might make more on unemployment than in a low-paying job. We understand that some employers worry the federal unemployment supplement made it hard for them to find workers.
But a new study by Yale University economists found that the expanded benefit did not “discourage workers from returning to their jobs over time” and “has not depressed employment in the aggregate.”
The study further noted: “As many states struggle with surges in Covid-19 cases as they move to reopen, there are still good reasons to not incentivize everyone to return to work.”
It appears the real obstacle to returning to work remains the threat of COVID-19 infection.
Many middle-class professionals can choose to work remotely from home. Restaurant workers, bartenders, grocery store employees, day care workers, nursing home employees, health care workers, custodians, hair stylists and many more don’t have that option.
What happens to them if businesses need to close again or, as Pennsylvania restaurants already have been required, reduce their occupancy levels to limit COVID-19’s spread? How is a server who relies on tips going to survive working in a restaurant operating at 25% indoor capacity?
What happens to the single parent who faces a choice between returning to a low-paying job — probably two, to make ends meet — and possibly contracting COVID-19? What happens to the kids if that parent falls ill?
We know that Washington types are lining up to put in their requests for any new stimulus bill.
Here’s our wish list:
— Real money, not token sums, for schools to help them meet the challenges of educating students in a pandemic. And no conditions on whether schools must reopen fully to get that money.
— Money for nonprofit hospitals, emergency responders, community health centers and community nonprofits.
— Hazard pay for essential workers putting their lives on the line in this pandemic and provisions for sick leave benefits.
— Food assistance for unemployed Americans, so they can feed themselves and their families, and pay their bills, without facing impossible choices.
— Protections for homeowners from foreclosure and help for landlords and tenants alike.
— Money for state and local governments struggling with revenue shortfalls, so they can provide vital services.
— And more relief for small businesses. The demand for such relief has been significantly outpaced by that available in the Lancaster County Small Business Recovery & Sustainability Fund, according to Lyle Hosler, vice president of Economic Development Company of Lancaster County. In its first phase, more than $27 million was sought, but only $11.7 million was available to distribute in grants. In the second phase, nearly $15 million in funding is available — but more than $31 million is being requested.
Unlike the federal debt that still lingers from the 2017 tax cut, this pandemic isn’t going to last forever. We need to ensure that Americans emerge from this crisis unbroken.
We’d urge you to contact Congressman Lloyd Smucker and Sens. Toomey and Bob Casey as soon as possible with your thoughts about what the next stimulus bill — and there must be a next one — should contain.