Senate GOP, White House propose cuts to unemployment relief checks

From today’s ABC News Online:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new coronavirus relief plan on the Senate floor after Senate Republican leaders and the White House appear to have overcome their differences.

“I hope this strong proposal will occasion a real response, not partisan cheap shots. Not the predictable, tired old rhetoric as though these were ordinary times, and the nation could afford ordinary politics,” McConnell said Monday afternoon in a floor speech.

But Democrats already don’t agree with the Republicans’ plan, which includes a $200 flat-rate, short-term extension to federal unemployment benefits as opposed to $600 a week, a senior source familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News, since it will take time before states’ systems can shift to accommodate any federal benefit changes.

Following McConnell’s floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Republican Party for “wasting precious time” in the months since Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package, arguing “the White House and Senate Republicans couldn’t get their act together” in the time since.

“Ten weeks after Democrats passed a comprehensive bill through the House, Senate Republicans couldn’t even agree on what to throw in on the wall,” Schumer said, adding that support for the plan presented Monday is still not clear. “Not only do we not know if the president supports any of these proposals, we don’t even know if Senate Republicans fully support.”

Republican sources familiar with the matter told ABC News later Monday that there could be as much as half the Senate GOP conference voting against the bill.

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McConnell says stimulus deal may take ‘a few weeks,’ putting millions with expiring jobless aid in limbo

From today’s Washington Post:

With days to go before enhanced jobless benefits expire, the White House and Senate Republicans are struggling to design a way to scale back the program without overwhelming state unemployment agencies and imperiling aid to more than 20 million Americans.

The hang-up has led to an abrupt delay in the introduction of the GOP’s $1 trillion stimulus package. The White House and Democrats have said they want a deal by the end of the month, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Friday that reaching an agreement could take several weeks, a timeline that could leave many unemployed Americans severely exposed.

“Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks,” McConnell said at an event in Ashland, Ky.

Part of the problem stems from a push by administration officials and GOP lawmakers to reduce a $600 weekly payment of enhanced federal unemployment benefits. The White House and the GOP disagree about how to do this, and talks remain highly contentious. They hope to release a proposal early next week.

After convulsing in March and April when the coronavirus pandemic shut down large parts of the United States, the economy showed signs of regaining its footing before sliding again in recent weeks. The effects of numerous stimulus programs appear to be wearing off, and the pace of layoffs has picked up again. Layoffs that many Americans thought would be temporary have dragged on and become permanent, particularly as new cases of the novel coronavirus surge in parts of the country.

This has put enormous pressure on state unemployment programs, which typically pay out about 45 percent of a worker’s prior wages. In March, Congress approved the $600-per-week emergency bonus for every unemployed worker on top of that traditional payment, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to newly jobless Americans as the pandemic hit the country.

That federal benefit, being received by more than 20 million people, is to expire at the end of this month. And the expiry comes as a federal eviction moratorium also is ending, creating a dynamic that could greatly stress cash-strapped families. In practice, the coming lapse in the jobless benefit means millions of workers are receiving their last enhanced benefit payment this week.

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Mnuchin says plan for unemployment extension will be based on 70% wage replacement

From today’s CNBC News Online:

The Republican coronavirus relief plan will extend enhanced unemployment insurance “based on approximately 70% wage replacement,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday. 

The Treasury secretary also said a payroll tax holiday, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for, “won’t be in the base bill.” The president appeared to concede defeat on the issue in a tweet Thursday and blamed Democrats for sinking the proposal (though many Republicans on Capitol Hill also oppose a payroll tax cut). 

Mnuchin spoke to CNBC about the state of negotiations hours after Senate Republicans and the Trump administration said they reached a tentative deal on legislation they say will serve as a starting point in talks with Democrats. Congress faces pressure to pass an aid package, as Covid-19 case and death counts rise around the country and the critical extra $600 per week unemployment benefit expires at the end of the month. 

But Republican plans to release their plan as soon as Thursday appeared to hit a snag as they tried to craft legislative text, further adding to doubts about Congress’ ability to provide immediate relief. Democrats hammered the GOP for a lack of urgency for a second straight day, and rejected the possibility of breaking a coronavirus package into more than one bill if lawmakers cannot reach a broad agreement in July. 

“This is a package. We cannot piecemeal this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He added that “we’re not going to take care of one portion of suffering people and leave everyone else hanging.”

It is unclear how Republicans would structure the plan to provide 70% wage replacement. Lawmakers chose the $600 per week sum in the March rescue package because they decided outdated state unemployment systems could not handle processing payouts for 100% of a worker’s previous wages. 

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California unemployment falls, but virus surge likely to reverse job gains

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California added 558,200 jobs from mid-May to mid-June and state unemployment fell from 16.4% to 14.9% — but don’t start celebrating yet. The numbers don’t account for the resurgence of COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. and in California in the last half of June or the retreat in plans to reopen the economy. The numbers were released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which slightly revised the earlier jobless figure from 16.3% to 16.4%.

Leisure and hospitality added the most jobs, at 292,500, benefiting from statewide reopenings of bars and dine-in restaurants, according to the California Employment Development Department. As of mid-June, that sector had regained more than a third of job losses from March and April. Construction jobs had the highest percentage gain, clawing back 68% of jobs lost during the pandemic. Government suffered the largest decline in jobs, at 36,300.

But the dial-back is bound to reverse a positive trend in rehiring as bars, restaurants, hotels, airlines and thousands of other affected businesses scale back already reduced operations or remain closed, said Michael S. Bernick, an attorney at Duane Morris and former head of the California Employment Development Department.

“In some cases, workers rehired in June have been laid off [again] within a short time,” he said. “In other cases, companies decide they can no longer hang on. Every day brings reports of businesses announcing they are closing permanently in California.” Still, he said, the job gain is the highest in the nation, and probably the largest monthly jobs gain since World War II.

But any recovery will be jerky. The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute said that due to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, “Layoffs are going to pick up again as people are laid off for a second time, and hires will likely slow as well.

“Even with June’s rebound, which followed a small upturn in May, payroll employment in California stands 1.9 million lower than February. This represents an 11% drop, worse than the 9.6% loss for the nation as a whole,” said Lynn Reaser, economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She noted that California’s current unemployment is nearly four times its 4% year-ago rate and well above the 11.1% national rate.

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Supreme Court ruling allows plan for religious limits to Obamacare contraceptive coverage

From today’s NBC News Online:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to give the nation’s employers more leeway in refusing to provide free birth control for their workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The ruling is a victory for the administration’s plan to greatly expand the kinds of employers who can cite religious or moral objections in declining to include contraceptives in their health care plans. Up to 126,000 women nationwide would lose birth control coverage under President Donald Trump’s plan, the government estimated. Planned Parenthood said nearly nine in 10 women seek contraceptive care of some kind during their lifetimes.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, gives the government authority to create the religious and moral objections, said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court’s 7-2 majority. The Department of Health and Human Services “has virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that same authority “leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own guidelines,” he said.

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the court in the past has struck a balance in religious freedom cases, so that the beliefs of some do not overwhelm the rights of others.

“Today for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree” and “leaves women workers to fend for themselves” in seeking contraceptive services, they said.

Women’s groups condemned the ruling. The National Women’s Law Center said more than 61 million women get birth control coverage through Obamacare.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will leave their ability to receive this critical coverage at the whim of their employers and universities,” the group said. “This decision will disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care.”

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Unemployment and job growth show strong improvement, but coronavirus darkens the outlook

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. economy added a larger-than-expected 4.8 million jobs in June despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, registering solid gains for the second straight month after suffering near-Great Depression losses in the spring, the government reported Thursday.

Reflecting the June increase, the nation’s unemployment level fell to 11.1% after hitting 13.3% in May and 14.7% in April.

While the back-to-back months of improving numbers offered a spot of hope, they may be an uncertain guide to the future. Coronavirus cases, as well as hospitalizations and infections among younger Americans, have been exploding in California and other states across the West and South.

As a result, many areas that were reopening for business, and thus beginning to call back workers, are reversing course and imposing restrictions again. “This report may be a kind of high point,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former Labor Department chief economist now at the Economic Policy Institute.

California’s employment numbers for June will be released July 17, and are likely to mirror the national trend, albeit at a weaker pace. The state’s jobless rate for May was 16.3%, little changed from April, as job creation lagged somewhat. Unemployment in Los Angeles County was 20.9% in May.

Even with the June gains, joblessness overall remains higher than at any time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ records began in 1948. Jobless rates dropped across the board, but disparities remain significant. Black unemployment was 15.4% compared with 14.5% for Latinos, 13.8% for Asians and 10.1% for white people. Unemployment for college graduates was down to 6.9% versus 12.1% for workers with only a high school education.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the overall unemployment rate for the nation might actually be 1 percentage point higher than the 11.1% reported due to complications in survey collection. Misclassification of workers’ status had resulted in a much bigger undercount of the unemployed in the prior two months.

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Employer-Based Health Care, Meet Massive Unemployment from Pandemic

From today’s New York Times:

In the early months of 2020, Americans were engaged in the perennial election-year debate over how best to reform the nation’s health care system. As usual, the electorate was torn and confused. Polling indicated that a small majority of likely voters favored a new universal system that would cover everyone. But that support evaporated when it was made clear that any such overhaul would involve abolishing the private insurance market. At the time, nearly 160 million Americans received their health benefits through an employer, and the vast majority of them liked that coverage just fine — maybe not enough to sing about it, but enough to be wary of a potential replacement.

Then came the pandemic of the century. And the highest level of unemployment since the Great Recession. And the most concentrated wave of job loss in the nation’s history — more than 40 million Americans filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and late May. It will take time to ascertain the full impact of those losses on the nation’s health insurance rate, but an early survey from the Commonwealth Fund is not encouraging: 41 percent of those who lost a job (or whose spouse lost a job) because of the pandemic relied on that job for health insurance; 20 percent of those people have not managed to secure alternative coverage.

Nothing illuminates the problems with an employer-based health care system quite like massive unemployment in the middle of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease outbreak. For one thing, uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care, making this coronavirus that much more difficult to contain. Also, people with chronic or immune-compromising medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this new contagion — which means the people most in need of employer-sponsored health benefits are the same ones who can least afford to return to work at the moment.

“The pandemic has amplified all the vulnerabilities in our health care system,” says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, including “the uninsured, racial disparities, the crisis of unmanaged chronic conditions and the general lack of national planning.”

As dire as the crisis is, though, it’s also an opportunity to look at health care reform with fresh eyes — and to maybe, finally, rebuild the nation’s health care system in a way that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy and the well employed.

The first step will be acknowledging the problems of our current system. If American health care were its own country, it would be the fourth largest in the world by gross domestic product. The nation spends an average of $3.5 trillion per year on health care — more than Japan, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia combined — and still loses more people to preventable and treatable medical conditions than any of those countries do.

In other words, America has created the most expensive, least effective health care system in the modern world, and the most vulnerable Americans have been paying for that failure with their lives since long before the coronavirus came to town.

Read the complete article here.

How COVID-19 turned a spotlight on weak worker rights in the U.S.

From today’s Harvard Gazette:

As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”

Q&A: SHARON BLOCK AND BENJAMIN SACHS

GAZETTE: What do you think the COVID-19 crisis has revealed about working conditions in the United States?

BLOCK: What it has revealed is something that many of us have known for a long time, but it’s been revealed in a much more urgent way, and it is how tattered our social safety net is in this country. That plays out in in a number of ways: for example, how inadequate our supports for workers are in terms of unemployment insurance. Just look at the desperate circumstances now more than 40 million workers have found themselves in. That’s been the reality for many low-wage workers, not on a mass scale, but that’s been their lived experience, even throughout a time when we thought we were in an expanding economy. The other side that has been exposed is that for workers who have been deemed essential and have worked throughout this crisis, how little protection they have in the workplace to be able to stand up for themselves, to say that their conditions are unsafe and they’re not being paid adequately for the important work they’re doing. On all sides of the social safety net and the ability of low-wage workers to have a decent life, what we’re seeing in myriad ways is how the system has failed workers.

SACHS: I would just add how weak the protections are for workers who stand up and demand safe, healthy, and fair working conditions, and how easy it is to fire workers who do that. It has also shown how badly broken our system of labor law is, which is to say that our system doesn’t give workers a voice so that the only recourse workers have is to take to the streets, and how little opportunity they have for an institutional structure of communication and demand-making. The other thing that Sharon and I would like to stress is how the crisis is being borne disproportionately by workers of color and women, which is another failing of our labor market and our system of labor law.

GAZETTE: Why are workers of color and women bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis? What role do the labor market and the labor law system play in it?

BLOCK: This is the result of the broken safety net we have. These are workers who are deemed essential, but the law has not treated as essential. They don’t have basic rights or the law doesn’t adequately address their situation. For lots of low-wage workers who are in these essential industries, the current labor law is particularly broken. They really have almost no real access to being able to act collectively and have the law recognize that and thereby give them power to affect their situation at work. As Ben said, they are predominantly workers of color and women, and that’s a big piece of why this pandemic has hit them so hard. We’re really seeing this connection that a lot of people intuitively knew, but hopefully more people understand now, which is that it is hard to separate economic issues and public health issues and issues of physical well-being. It’s not an accident that most people who are getting sick are poor or paid low wages.

Read the complete article here.

Why a Rotting Green Bay Boardwalk May Help Solve America’s Jobs Crisis

From today’s New York Times:

The governor of Pennsylvania wants to hire unemployed workers to help the state track the spread of the coronavirus in the fall. City Council members in Austin, Texas, voted to pay people to help with projects like preparing land for fire season. And Green Bay, Wis., hopes to pay the out-of-work to fix a decades-old rotted boardwalk in a major recreation area.

Across the country, state and local officials are considering ways to directly hire their out-of-work constituents, hoping that they can pay them to clean up parks, assist in conservation efforts and form the backbone of the public health response to the virus.

The programs so far are likely to allow for only a small number of jobs, in some cases just a handful. But local officials say they are hopeful the idea can persuade other areas to try similar efforts and, more important, elicit additional funding from Congress to support local job creation.

The effort is aimed at helping communities deal with an unemployment crisis more severe than what the nation faced at the worst moment of the Great Depression. Tens of million of workers have lost their jobs since mid-March, when the pandemic forced consumers into their homes and shut down most businesses. New unemployment claims have topped one million for 13 straight weeks.

So far, lawmakers and governors have mostly pushed for policies that will ensure Americans can go back to the jobs they held before the pandemic. The federal government allocated $660 billion for forgivable loans to businesses that agreed to keep workers on the payroll. Republican lawmakers have said they are interested in providing bonuses to people who return to work in lieu of extending expanded unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on July 31. And states have pushed to quickly reopen workplaces so that employees can regain a paycheck.

Read the complete article here.

In landmark case, Supreme Court rules federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from job discrimination

From today’s NBC News:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status, a major victory for advocates of gay rights and for the nascent transgender rights movement — and a surprising one from an increasingly conservative court.

By a vote of 6-3, the court said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate because of a person’s sex, among other factors, also covers sexual orientation and transgender status. It upheld rulings from lower courts that said sexual orientation discrimination was a form of sex discrimination.

Equally surprising was that the decision was written by President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority.

“An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” he wrote, adding, “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Across the nation, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven more provide that protection only to public employees. Those laws remain in force, but Monday’s ruling means federal law now provides similar protection for LGBTQ employees in the rest of the country.

Gay and transgender rights groups considered the case a highly significant one, even more important than the fight to get the right to marry, because nearly every LGBTQ adult has or needs a job. They conceded that sexual orientation was not on the minds of anyone in Congress when the civil rights law was passed. But they said when an employer fires a male employee for dating men, but not a female employee who dates men, that violates the law.

Read the complete article here.