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'Action is urgently needed': How Congress can help workers during the pandemic

‘There is no time to waste.’

By Derek Kilmer - March 24, 2020
Virus Outbreak Missouri, nurses
Nurses head out to direct cars into a coronavirus testing center outside the Mercy Virtual Care Center in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. The drive-thru testing center will open to patients daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

As Americans grapple with the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis and communities take significant measures to contain its spread, we are already seeing serious disruptions in everyday life and significant economic impacts. Now is the time for Congress to take bold, bipartisan action to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the American people.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to support the response to COVID-19. While that legislation focused primarily on getting public health resources out the door, it also included a provision I led to allow low-interest disaster loans to be made available by the U.S. Small Business Administration to help small businesses impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Last week, more action was taken when Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, legislation aimed at addressing the severe impacts of the coronavirus on Americans’ personal safety and financial security. In addition to expanding unemployment assistance to people who are unable to work due to the current coronavirus outbreak, the legislation provides paid leave, establishes free coronavirus testing, expands food assistance for vulnerable children and families, protects frontline health workers, and provides additional funding to states for the ongoing economic consequences of the pandemic.

Both of these steps were important — but more action is urgently needed. Donald Trump needs to recognize the severity of the outbreak and, along with Congress, must take immediate steps to end this pandemic and protect our economy.

That’s why I am proud to lead the New Democrat Coalition, a group of more than 100 forward-looking House Democrats who all share a commitment to developing durable policy solutions to our most pressing issues. The Coalition released policy recommendations for the next COVID-19 response package ensuring American families, students, employers, health care providers, and communities have the resources and assistance they need in these difficult times should be our number one priority.

In our priorities, the Coalition outlines the need to take immediate action to support public health efforts and prevent an economic crisis by quickly deploying resources and economic assistance to health care providers and hard-hit individuals and businesses.

We need to utilize existing mechanisms and reduce unnecessary hurdles that will slow the deployment of assistance if economic conditions continue or worsen. Not only should Congress act quickly, the assistance needs to get out the door quickly.

That’s why we’ve recommended using existing mechanisms (including the tax code, the unemployment insurance system, and lending institutions) to reduce unnecessary hurdles that might otherwise slow the deployment of assistance.

Additionally, we know that these challenges may be with us for a while. American employers and American families need some sense of predictability. Unfortunately, in the midst of this crisis, that’s largely non-existent. While a one-off (or even two-off) direct payment can help cover urgent bills, it’s a flawed strategy if folks don’t know what their circumstances will be 3-6 months from now.

With that in mind, we’ve proposed automatic stabilizers to provide certainty and trigger additional assistance and stimulus if economic conditions continue or worsen.

While hope springs eternal for an agreement in the Senate on an emergency assistance and economic stabilization bill, there are clearly some key ingredients to ending this pandemic and mitigating the painful economic impacts, including:

  • Emergency funding to protect health care workers and ensure they have the protective gear, training, and dependent care assistance they need.
  • Direct support to individuals, expanded and enhanced social safety net programs like unemployment insurance, enhanced tax credits, adjustments to retirement savings and health care benefits, housing assistance, and more.
  • Help to impacted businesses focused on getting more liquidity into the market where it is needed most through expanded federal low or no interest loans and grants for small and mid-sized businesses, tax relief to support the retention of employees and paid leave, and relief for consumers.
  • Direct funding, grants, and other assistance to states, territories, local, and tribal governments.

Now is the time for all our federal leaders to come together to take immediate action. We are hopeful that many of our recommendations will be included in the package and a deal is reached as soon as possible. There is no time to waste.

Derek Kilmer is the representative for Washington’s 6th Congressional District. He is chair of the New Democrat Coalition, chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and currently serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

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