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With pandemic relief programs set to run out for workers, a reckoning lies ahead

From today’s New York Times:

The multitrillion-dollar patchwork of federal and state programs intended to address job losses from the pandemic has not prevented tens of millions of layoffs or long lines at food banks. But it has mitigated the damage.

Now the expiration of those programs represents a looming cliff.

The $1,200 payments have already gone out to most eligible households. The lending program that helped millions of small businesses keep workers on the payroll will wind down if Congress does not extend it. And the $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits that have allowed tens of millions of laid-off workers to pay rent and buy groceries will expire at the end of July.

The economic damage wrought by the virus has been widespread. More than 40 million people — the equivalent of one out of every four American workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March. It is an astonishing tally that rivals the bleakest years of the Great Depression. And people continue to lose their jobs: the government reported Thursday that 2.1 million people had filed unemployment claims last week.

Now there are questions about how long the federal aid meant to cushion the blow will last.

Even the possibility that the programs will be allowed to expire could have economic consequences as consumers and businesses rein in spending, said Aneta Markowska, the chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies. “This economy is clearly going to need more support,” she said.

Economists including Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, have called for further action. But a partisan standoff on Capitol Hill makes it likely that any aid will be far more limited than the $3 billion package passed this month in the Democratic-controlled House.

President Trump and other Republicans have played down the need for more spending, saying the solution is for states to reopen their economies. Extending benefits, they say, could impede the recovery by giving people an incentive not to return to work.

Read the complete article here.

Trump threatens funds for states that make it easier to vote in pandemic

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump on Wednesday threatened to hold up federal funds for two election battleground states that are trying to make it easier and safer to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

The president’s tweets targeting Michigan and Nevada marked an escalation in his campaign against voting by mail, a practice that he has publicly worried will lead so many people to vote that Republicans will lose in November. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mail voting as a safe option during the pandemic, Trump has opposed the spread of the practice.

Wednesday marked the first time he has tried to use federal dollars to beat it back. Trump began by targeting Michigan, with a false description of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s announcement Tuesday that she would send applications for absentee ballots to every voter in the state and branding it as an invitation to voter fraud.ADVERTISING

“Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, That brought strong criticism from Michigan and elsewhere, pointing out that the state was sending applications, not actual ballots.

About six hours after his original tweet, Trump corrected it to say “absentee ballot applications.” He kept the rest intact: “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Trump later made a similar threat against Nevada, which has sent ballots to voters for its June 9 state primary. A federal judge recently cleared Nevada’s decision to mail ballots, which were sent by the Republican secretary of state.

Read the complete article here.

Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

From The Guardian Online:

Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change.

Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March.

Norma Kennedy, an employee at an American Apparel clothing plant is one of those people. Kennedy along with dozens of other workers walked off her job in Selma, Alabama, on 23 April after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a US army contract.

“We left for our own protection,” said Kennedy. “Beforehand, management said if someone tested positive they would shut down and have the plant cleaned. When workers tested positive, they didn’t want to shut it down. They’re not really concerned about the workers.”

Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests throughout the pandemic as workers across various industries, including food service, meat processingretail, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare have come together to protest about issues, many of which were apparent before the coronavirus.

“There are no federal mandates or requirements to implement the social distancing guidance or anything else. It’s only guidance and employers can choose to implement them or not,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of worker safety and health for the National Employment Law Project. “And that is why, in an unprecedented way, they are walking out to bring public attention to the fact that their companies are not protecting their safety and health.”

Read the complete article here.

New Privacy Bills Aim to Protect Health Data During the Pandemic

From today’s Consumer Reports Online:

Tech companies are developing new contact-tracing apps, sharing people’s location information with health researchers, and taking other steps to put consumer data to work in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Now, lawmakers are writing laws to ensure the increased surveillance doesn’t also end up hurting consumers.

Over the past two weeks, legislators in the House and Senate proposed competing privacy bills that would establish safeguards.

The bills differ in some big ways, but both include rules mandating transparency and consent, and controlling the use of data for purposes other than public health. The first, the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act, was introduced by Senate Republicans last week. Democrats introduced a counterproposal today, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act. 

Tech companies are taking a variety of approaches to collecting and sharing consumer data in the wake of the pandemic.

A Facebook survey conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University is tracking symptoms to look for new hot spots around the country. Ancestry and 23andMe are using their collections of DNA data to search for genetic clues that might predict how severely a patient will react to a coronavirus infection. Apple and Google joined forces to build a contact tracing technology that uses Bluetooth signals from cell phones to identify and notify people who have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus. And businesses from location data brokers to smart thermometer companies are repurposing other kinds of data for public health research.

Public health experts have mixed opinions on whether the efforts will provide useful tools for containing the pandemic. But even tools that do help can also introduce serious privacy concerns.

“It’s all very well intentioned, but there is a huge risk here that there could be some really pernicious discrimination, especially when you think about how this virus is disproportionately affecting African Americans, Hispanics, older Americans, and other marginalized communities,” says David Brody, counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that endorsed the Democrats’ Public Health Emergency Privacy Act.

Read the compete article here.

‘Lives Were Lost’ as Warnings Went Unheeded, Whistle-Blower Tells House

From today’s New York Times:

The whistle-blower who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency charged on Thursday that top Trump administration officials failed to heed his early warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to combat the coronavirus, and that Americans died as a result.

“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed in April as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told a House subcommittee as he warned, “The window is closing to address this pandemic.”

Over nearly four hours of testimony, Dr. Bright told lawmakers that the outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the United States did not swiftly develop a national testing strategy. He also predicted vaccine shortages if the administration did not draft a distribution plan now.

After holding back for nearly a month, President Trump and his health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, hit back at Dr. Bright, elevating the confrontation. Mr. Trump dismissed Dr. Bright as a “disgruntled employee” while Mr. Azar insisted officials followed through on the scientist’s ideas.

Dr. Bright’s testimony was the first time a federal scientist — or any federal official — had gone before Congress and openly accused the administration of endangering American lives by bungling its coronavirus response. He said Americans would face “the darkest winter in modern history” if the administration did not move quickly, as people become “restless” to leave their homes.

That came two days after Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, contradicted Mr. Trump by warning of “needless suffering and death” if states reopened too quickly, amounting to a one-two punch for the administration.

Read the complete article here.

Congress calls essential workers ‘heroes,’ hasn’t passed hazard pay raise

From today’s CNBC News:

Anyone listening to congressional leaders speak during the coronavirus outbreak has heard a lot about the “heroes” sustaining the rest of the country. 

A view outside Bellevue hospital during the coronavirus pandemic on May 1, 2020 in New York City.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday lionized “American heroes” in the health-care industry whom he said should have stronger protections from lawsuits. About a month earlier, Senate Democrats proposed a “Heroes Fund” to give a $13 an hour hazard pay raise to workers — from doctors and nurses to grocery and transit employees — who face a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus

House Democrats, who hold the majority in the chamber, also used the term “heroes” on Tuesday, calling their next $3 trillion relief bill the “HEROES Act.” The proposal, which could pass in the Democratic-controlled House but has little chance of getting through the GOP-held Senate and becoming law, includes a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to offer front-line employees a raise.

Two months into the pandemic, only some businesses and cities have given the people still required to go into work a raise. While lawmakers have put forward several hazard pay plans, none of them made the cut in the four bills Congress has passed to try to mitigate the coronavirus’s devastation. 

As workers deemed essential “heroes” during the pandemic push for better compensation, no legislation with a real chance of becoming law has yet included better pay for them. As Republicans pump the brakes on another major federal spending bill, passage of a widespread wage hike for front-line workers appears unlikely in the coming weeks.  

“They’re putting their lives on the line, they’re essential employees. They should be compensated for that. This is above and beyond the normal call of duty,” said Bob Gibson, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in Florida, a state where the union represents more than 25,000 health-care employees. 

Read the complete article here.

California considers unprecedented $25 billion recovery fund and rental relief

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on Monday. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.”

The proposals are scheduled to be formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Sacramento, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom sends lawmakers a plan to erase a short-term budget deficit that could total more than $54 billion.

Neither the renter-assistance program nor the economic recovery fund would have a direct effect on the state budget in the coming weeks and months. Still, lawmakers believe both ideas could boost California’s shattered economy.

The unconventional effort to help renters would ask landlords to forgive rent payments in exchange for equally sized tax credits spread out over a 10-year period starting in 2024. The tax credits would be transferable, meaning the property owner could sell them to an outside investor and get cash immediately.

“This is a substantive proposal that protects those who are struggling to afford their rent and also keeps rental properties from going into foreclosure,” state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said. “This equitable strategy will keep people housed.”

Some local governments have already stepped up to address concerns about renters being evicted during the public health crisis, promoting a variety of rental assistance programs. Pending legislation at the state Capitol also seeks to prevent evictions during the coronavirus state of emergency, which was declared by Newsom in March and has no targeted end date.

Read the complete article here.

Airlines issued billions in vouchers but can consumers get cash refunds

From today’s MarketWatch Online:

While airlines are providing refunds when they cancel flights, very few carriers are doing so when a customer proactively chooses to cancel a trip because of the coronavirus outbreak, a new report from a group of Democratic lawmakers charges.

U.S. Senators Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Kamala Harris released the findings of an investigation into airline procedures in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Air travel has all but come to a halt as the number of COVID-19 cases around the world has continued to grow. Passenger volume is down some 97%, according to industry trade group Airlines for America, reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. The average flight today is only transporting 10 passengers, down from around 100 before the coronavirus crisis, the group notes.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened, airlines quickly began adopting relaxed policies allowing passengers to receive travel vouchers and to rebook trips without incurring fees if they wanted to change their travel plans. But airlines have been stingier when it comes to providing full refunds.

In total, U.S. carriers are sitting on more than $10 billion in customer cash in the form of vouchers, based on the lawmakers’ calculations. While most airlines refused to confirm the value of the vouchers they had extended, the senators used data provided by JetBlue to reach that amount.

“If these companies released that money back to the public, it would provide a significant stimulus for struggling families,” the senators said in a joint statement. “That’s why we once again urge the airlines to end their anti-consumer policies and offer real refunds during this emergency.”

The Democratic lawmakers sent inquiries to 11 airlines. JetBlue said in its response to the senators’ inquiry that it issued more than $20 million per day in vouchers to consumers in the first few weeks of March. The senators reached the $10 billion figure based on JetBlue’s domestic market share, assuming that the trend was even across the month of March and across the industry.

Read the complete article here.

The Legal Fight Over Voting Rights During The Pandemic Is Getting Hotter

From today’s NPR News Online:

The legal fight over how Americans will vote this year is rapidly turning into a war. That’s according to conservative “election integrity” advocates who accuse Democrats of using the current pandemic to push through changes that these groups say will undermine U.S. elections.

“We are watching as the Democrats and radicalized special interest groups are using this fog of COVID to fundamentally remake American elections,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, a group that says it is trying to protect against voter fraud. She spoke on Thursday during a webinar sponsored by a conservative nonprofit, the Committee for Justice.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups say that they’re actually trying to protect voters’ rights and to eliminate obstacles they believe are intended to suppress the votes of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

Of immediate concern to both sides are efforts to expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic. A number of states are loosening restrictions on absentee ballots so people can vote without having to go to the polls in person. More than a dozen court cases have been filed in recent weeks either challenging those changes or calling for states to do even more to make mail-in voting accessible.

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request by True the Vote to block a Nevada plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters for the state’s June 9 primary. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du dismissed as “speculative” and “without any factual basis” the group’s claim that the plan would expose the election to fraud and thereby dilute the votes of legitimate voters.

Read the complete article here

California Sues Uber and Lyft, Claiming Workers Are Misclassified

From today’s New York Times:

California’s attorney general and a coalition of city attorneys in the state sued Uber and Lyft on Tuesday, claiming the companies wrongfully classified their drivers as independent contractors in violation of a state law that makes them employees.

The law, known as Assembly Bill 5, requires companies to treat their workers as employees instead of contractors if they control how workers perform tasks or if the work is a routine part of a company’s business.

At least one million gig workers in the state are affected by the law, which is supposed to give them a path to benefits like a minimum wage and unemployment insurance that have been traditionally withheld from independent contractors.

Although A.B. 5 took effect on Jan. 1, Uber, Lyft and other gig economy companies that operate in California have resisted and are not taking steps to reclassify their drivers. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have poured $90 million into a campaign for a ballot initiative that would exempt them from complying with the law. Uber has also argued that its core business is technology, not rides, and therefore drivers are not a key part of its business.

The lawsuit also claims the ride-hailing companies are engaging in an unfair business practice that harms other California companies that follow the law. By avoiding payroll taxes and not paying minimum wage, Uber and Lyft are able to provide rides at “an artificially low cost,” the suit claims, giving them a competitive advantage over other businesses. The suit seeks civil penalties and back wages for workers that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“California has ground rules with rights and protections for workers and their employers. We intend to make sure that Uber or Lyft play by the rules,” Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said in a statement. The city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego joined in the lawsuit.

California’s move is a significant threat to the gig companies and could influence other states with similar laws to take action against them, labor experts said.

Read the complete article here.