By PATRICIA A. MARTONE
After nearly a month of stay-at-home orders in all but six states, millions of families are finding it impossible to keep food on the table and pay rent because of mass layoffs and furloughs. Twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits and adequate government support for unemployed workers is desperately needed. Such benefits not only help workers, they also prevent the complete collapse of the economy. Additional support for workers was included in the CARES Act (H.R. 748). But, thanks to the Trump administration, millions of workers are finding out that they have been intentionally locked out of receiving these benefits.
From the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, Republicans have sought to provide unprecedented economic relief to businesses, while ignoring the plight of workers. In the negotiations leading to the CARES Act, the Republican controlled Senate initially proposed an all out $500 billion handout to big business with nothing for employees. After intense negotiations with Democrats, the president and Republicans in Congress finally agreed to include the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which adds an extra $600 a week (until July) to existing state unemployment and covers workers that were previously excluded from benefits. However, as soon as the expanded benefits were rolled out by the Labor Department, it became clear that the Administration, through rulemaking, is doing its best to exclude as many workers as possible from these benefits.
These rules contain a litany of unnecessary restrictions that permit states to require direct proof that unemployment resulted directly from the pandemic, or a doctor’s note proving the applicant contracted COVID-19. Unemployment benefits at the state level are already delayed because of the massive influx of claims. Allowing states to add additional rules only delays or completely stops desperately needed assistance and undermines the entire PUA program. Further, the Labor Department rules exclude gig-economy workers, self-employed, and independent contractors who are among the groups the PUA program was intended to help.
The direction of this Administration is clear – give large handouts to corporations without restraint while creating a nest of red tape to block workers from the funds given to them in the CARES Act.
But the Department of Labor isn’t the only Administrative agency trying to undermine and underpay workers. Independent from the CARES Act, Trump’s Department of Agriculture is currently considering a wage cut for foreign guest workers on the H-2A program in order to ease the current economic burden on farmers. Participants in the H-2A program make up 10% of all farmworkers in the nation. Their wages are set at a rate under $15 an hour, so it is astonishing to hear farm industry groups describe their measly wage as “artificially high”, and advocate for a wage of $8.34 an hour – only slightly higher than the abysmally low federal minimum wage of $7.35 an hour. This proposal would have a particularly cruel effect on hardworking laborers who provide the food for our local stores.
The Trump administration’s plan to bailout businesses and punish workers isn’t just immoral – it’s bad economic policy. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of our GDP and if consumers can’t afford to spend, our economy comes to a grinding halt. When wealthy Americans like me acquire additional cash, we tend to invest it. But the average worker, when given cash, will pump that money right back into the economy, purchasing food and consumer products. It is essential that we bail out the workers who will be the ones resuscitating our economy.
Americans were struggling to stay afloat before the COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, this crisis has shown us that our “essential” workers are also our lowest paid workers. The foundational principle of United States democracy is that the government exists to serve the people. That means all of the people, not just a fortunate few. This crisis is not political – the coronavirus does not care if you are a Republican or Democrat. Similarly, this country does not need economic relief tethered to politics. It is time for our leaders to step up and take care of all of our workers and businesses.
Patricia A. Martone is a practicing attorney, a former adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Law, a former equity partner in several law firms, and a member of Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy individuals united in their concern about the destabilizing concentration of wealth and power in America.