On Monday, July 27, the Republican leadership in the Senate announced its plan for the next coronavirus relief package – the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act. Unfortunately, the HEALS act doesn’t do enough to protect jobs, families, and small businesses and lacks basic details for timeline and implementation. We must tell Congress that the American people need and deserve more.
The HEALS Act would drastically reduce the supplemental $600 weekly UI benefit that unemployed Americans have been receiving at a time when there still aren’t enough available jobs. The bill’s sponsors claim the $600 supplement is leading people to actively choose not to work, but this is just not true. The reality is, people want to work but not enough jobs have come back. Plus, many workplaces remain unsafe from COVID health threats. Until there is a drastic improvement in jobs available, the supplemental $600 weekly UI benefit is a critical lifeline that job seekers cannot afford to lose, and should be extended until the end of this crisis. The HEALS Act assumes the worst of the American people. It assumes that people aren’t working because they’re lazy or they’re playing the system. We know that systemic barriers and poor job quality are the policy issues that we should be focusing on, and that workers right now need and deserve support.
Cutting benefits isn’t the way to get people back to work. Instead, we need more funding for workforce development. The HEALS Acts’ $1 billion allocation for workforce development results in only $20 per laid off worker – not nearly enough to meet the needs of American workers in this rapidly shifting economy. We need to commit greater funding to prepare displaced workers for the changing economy. Even before the pandemic, jobs were changing or becoming automated. The coronavirus has accelerated this transformation, further necessitating greater investment in workforce development and training.
The package also doesn’t provide crucial housing and food supports. It doesn’t extend the eviction moratorium nor expand SNAP benefits even though we are seeing record increases in eviction and food insecurity. Homelessness and hunger have lasting consequences on employment, child development, and other important measures of societal health, so it is critical that any coronavirus relief package invests the necessary resources to mitigate these crises before they spiral further.
For those fortunate enough to keep their jobs, the HEALS Act reduces workers’ protection and recourse to legal methods. Senate Republicans are demanding liability protections that would absolve businesses of culpability in COVID-related complaints, unless the complaint is related to a “grossly negligent” or “intentional” act. Both of those conditions, however, are vaguely defined and near impossible to prove. Weakening workers’ access to legal recourse further erodes worker power and access to safe work conditions during a pandemic that is continuing to spread.
The HEALS Act also does not sufficiently fortify the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In the plan, only businesses that have at least 50% less revenue than last year will be eligible to receive new PPP loans. Small businesses can be in danger of closing well before that mark, but the HEALS Act leaves them out because they aren’t struggling enough, as defined by this largely arbitrary metric.
Finally, the HEALS package leaves out state and local governments at the brink of complete financial crisis. The package does not have any additional funds for state and local governments to support COVID-19 relief efforts even though in many cases, local government bodies are the best suited to address the unique obstacles for their citizens. Illinois could face budget shortages in the billions without significant relief – which could spell cuts to critical community services and add thousands of teachers, service providers, and government workers to the unemployment rolls.
It is Congress’ responsibility to protect the American people. With record high UI applications and historic job losses, acting expansively and effectively now is necessary to support our recovery. Lawmakers need to know the HEALS Act does not do enough nor go far enough. Join CJC and the National Skills Coalition here to tell Congress we need a more expansive COVID-19 relief package that includes continued cash assistance, more workforce development, better housing supports, and more protection for workers.