A few weeks ago, the Chicago Jobs Council joined 47 other Illinois-based workforce development service providers, businesses, advocates, and industry stakeholders in lifting up recommendations to our Congresspeople, requesting critical support for vulnerable workers and job seekers impacted by COVID-19.
A few days ago, House Leader Nancy Pelosi announced a new piece of legislation called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to outline an ambitious proposal for another round of much needed resources and policies to protect economic stability, healthcare, food access, workers’ rights, housing, and other critical needs for Americans in crisis.
We are excited to see that the HEROES Act provides additional funding for workforce development programs and services, but concerned that the current proposal does not reach the scale needed to meet the unprecedented numbers and needs of job seekers and does not provide sufficient flexibility for service providers rapidly adjusting to an upturned labor market.
The bill includes:
- $3.1 billion to the Department of Labor to support workforce training and worker protection activities related to coronavirus, including:
- $2 billion to support worker training;
- $25 million for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including emergency supportive services;
- $925 million to assist States in processing unemployment insurance claims;
- $15 million for the federal administration of unemployment insurance activities;
- $100 million for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for workplace protection and enforcement activities in response to coronavirus, including $25 million for Susan Harwood training grants that protect and educate workers;
- $6.5 million for the Wage and Hour Division to support enforcement and outreach activities for paid leave benefits; and
- $5 million for the Office of the Inspector General.
- Funding for Grants to the Local Workforce Development System and Community-based Organizations for Contact Tracing. As part of $75 billion dollars to support expansion of contact tracing, the Act would authorize grants to support the recruitment, placement, and training of individuals in COVID-19 contact tracing and related positions, with a focus on recruiting from impacted local communities and building a culturally competent workforce. This section also provides for transitional assistance and support post-employment.
- Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program. Establishes a loan repayment program to enhance recruitment and retention of state, local, tribal, and territorial public health department workforce.
- Second Chance Act grants – $250 million for grants to help facilitate the reintegration of ex-prisoners back into society and to prevent recidivism.
- Community College and Industry Partnership Grants: Reauthorizes Trade Adjustment Assistance for Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grants, which were initially awarded during the Great Recession by the Department of Labor to support community college and industry partnerships in creating education and training programs.
While these resources for the workforce will be critical, they don’t go far enough. The leading proposal for workforce development, the Reinvesting in America’s Workforce Act (RAWA), goes further by providing a full $15.1 billion in funding for workforce programs and services. Given that the unemployment rate in Illinois currently sits over 20%, far surpassing rates reached during the Great Recession, the funding we need must also far surpass previous investments so that we can not only address unprecedented worker dislocation, but ensure that opportunities are distributed equitably and that programs reach marginalized job seekers to help them reconnect to the labor marked and gain in-demand skills. We urge Congress to increase the workforce funding to at least the level proposed in RAWA.
The current package also fails to introduce sufficient flexibility and security for current workforce providers who may struggle to meet performance metrics due to the drastic volatility in the labor market. WIOA performance measures must adapt to changing regional service strategies and economic factors, and offer opportunities for state agencies to renegotiate metrics in this tumultuous, unprecedented labor market. At this time of heightened uncertainty, particularly for community-based service providers who rely on federal funding to retain their staff of workforce professionals, we must eliminate this precarity and offer maximum flexibility. This does not mean sacrificing program quality – on the contrary, quality services will require agencies to be nimble and responsive to the shifting needs of job seekers and employers as this situation continues to develop.
The HEROES Act has significant bright spots for workers, job seekers, and others who are struggling economically. These include:
- Expands Paid Sick Days and Paid Leave protections,
- Strong state and local fiscal relief to help states and cities address gaping budget gaps and minimize cuts to essential services;
- An increase in SNAP food assistance benefits, a 2 year pause on ABAWD work requirements, and exemption of the extra $600 in unemployment benefits from PUC from counting towards SNAP income limits;
- Extensions of key unemployment insurance provisions of the CARES Act, including extended benefits and increased benefit amounts, through January 2021;
- Supports Moratoriums on Fees and Fines in State and local courts by establishing a grant program that distributes funds directly to state and local courts, with the condition that they impose a moratorium on the imposition and collection of court-imposed fees and fines during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Funding for low-income housing assistance that will help address housing insecurity and homelessness.
Finally, the HEROES Act does include a second round of one-time $1200 stimulus payments. Excitingly, these payments would be available to many of the people who were left out of the first round of payments (like immigrant families, older dependents, college students, and people who owe child support). However, we share concerns with other advocates that Americans really need bigger, recurring payments that last through the duration of this crisis – such as those proposed in the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act championed by Senators Harris, Sanders, and Markey.
Given the urgency of the crisis that our communities face, it is crucial that Congress take action on another relief package – but they cannot stop with only the provisions outlined in the HEROES Act. We must continue to push for even bolder solutions that match the unprecedented scale of the problems we face and allow us to move past the many structural injustices and crises that many people faced far before COVID-19.