Coronavirus relief talks restart as jobless aid divides GOP and Democrats

From today’s CNBC News Online:

Democrats and Trump administration officials will sit down again Monday afternoon to try to hammer out an elusive deal on a fifth coronavirus aid bill. 

Negotiators House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows plan to meet at 1 p.m. ET as the sides find themselves far from an agreement. The discussions will follow Sunday’s staff-level talks on a package to help rein in a raging pandemic and jolt a flailing U.S. economy. 

The effort has gained urgency after a $600 per week federal unemployment benefit expired at the end of July. The extra aid has helped tens of millions of jobless people afford food and housing as the economy reels during the outbreak. 

Pelosi has indicated the sides made more progress in talks over the weekend than they did in discussions last week. Asked Monday how far apart Democrats and Republicans are, the speaker said she would wait to see how Monday’s talks go. 

“Well, let’s see when we meet today,” she told CNN. “It’s absolutely essential that we reach agreement.” 

Disagreements over how to structure unemployment insurance have stood in the way of a deal. Democrats have insisted on continuing the $600 weekly sum. They passed a House bill in May to extend the aid into next year.

Republicans, who questioned the need for more pandemic relief before they released a proposal last week, want to slash the extra benefit to $200 per week through September. They would then set the aid at 70% wage replacement.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

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 Fine Print, Airlines Make It Harder to Fight for Passenger Rights

From today’s New York Times:

As air travel reopens and flight bookings begin to creep up, AvGeeks — aviation geeks — and others may notice some new legalese in the fine print when they buy plane tickets. More and more carriers are adding clauses that require passengers to settle disputes with the airline in private arbitration, rather than in court, and bar passengers from starting or joining class-action lawsuits.

In early April, American Airlines updated its contract of carriage, a standard industry document that outlines the legal responsibilities of a ticket holder and an airline, with a class-action waiver. British Airways followed in late May, adding a class-action waiver and binding arbitration agreement in the terms and conditions of Executive Club, its loyalty program, for residents of the United States and Canada. British Airways notified members by email.

“What the airline is saying is: If you ever have a dispute with us, the only way you can pursue this is in private,” said Deborah Hensler, Ph.D., a professor of law at Stanford Law School. “These types of agreements are usually an effort to prevent people from having an effective way of challenging a company on what might arguably be a legal violation.”

The timing hardly seems coincidental. Airlines of all sizes are being sued for withholding billions of dollars from passengers whose flights were canceled because of Covid-19. American Airlines was named in a class-action lawsuit in April; a similar one was filed against British Airways in early May. Also in April, separate but similar class actions were filed against the low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, both of which had “No Class Action” clauses in their contracts of carriage before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

These lawsuits have more than 100 class members and seek more than $5 million in combined claims. All claim that the airlines are either breaching their own contracts of carriage — which usually codifies a passenger’s right to a cash refund when a flight is canceled — or sidestepping a Department of Transportation policy that requires airlines to give refunds when flights to, from or within the United States are canceled. Or both.

In a statement, a spokesman for American Airlines said the new class-action waiver is meant to “ensure that customers have an avenue to pursue and resolve disputes with us, including by filing an individual lawsuit. We remain committed to resolving issues customer-by-customer when they arise.”

Read the complete article here.

What to Make of the Rebound in the U.S. Jobs Report

From today’s New York Times:

The job market halted its pandemic-induced collapse in May as employers brought back millions of workers and the unemployment rate unexpectedly declined. Tens of millions are still out of work, and the unemployment rate, which fell to 13.3 percent from 14.7 percent in April, remains worse than in any previous postwar recession. The rate would have been higher had it not been for data-collection issues.

Nonetheless, after weeks of data depicting enormous economic destruction, Friday’s report from the Labor Department offered a glimmer of hope. Employers added 2.5 million jobs in May, defying economists’ expectations of further losses and holding the prospect that the rebound from the economic crisis could be faster than forecast.

Job growth was concentrated in industries hit hardest early in the crisis, like leisure, hospitality and retail work. But manufacturing, health care and professional services added jobs as well, possibly signaling that the damage did not spread as deeply into the economy as many feared. Major stock indexes surged on the news, and President Trump hailed the report in remarks outside the White House, saying the rebound “leads us onto a long period of growth.”

“We will go back to having the greatest economy anywhere in the world, nothing close, and I think we’re going to have a very good upcoming few months,” Mr. Trump said.

All the same, economists warn that it will take far longer for the economy to climb out of the hole than it did to fall into it. And even as the economy shows signs of revival, the United States is confirming more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day, with counts rising in particular in the South and the West.

While employers recalled temporarily laid-off or furloughed workers in May, the number of permanent job losses rose, a sign that some businesses didn’t survive the shutdown, or expect demand to stay depressed as the economy reopens. Others are bringing back workers at reduced hours: The number of people working part time because they couldn’t find full-time work barely budged. And millions more people have been laid off in the weeks since the data released Friday was collected in mid-May.

Read the complete article here.

A Hidden COVID-19 Risk Factor: Your Employer Policy on Paid Sick Leave

From today’s Atlantic Magazine:

When the coronavirus first hit the United States, some politicians referred to it as the “great equalizer” because it supposedly didn’t discriminate. But very soon, that proved not to be true. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, for example, and low-paid essential workers have little choice but to show up for work and expose themselves. And if employees do get sick, whether they receive sufficient paid time off to recover is another pandemic disparity. Although many workers have found that their bosses are understanding about time off, others have struggled to get paid leave to heal or to care for their children.

In March, I wrote about a Walmart employee in Washington State who was fired because he had used up all his attendance “points” recovering from what he believed was COVID-19, a situation Walmart declined to comment on. In April, a grocery-store employee in Indiana claimed she was fired for staying at home with a potential case of COVID-19. (She sued, and the case was settled.) A 58-year-old nursing-home worker in St. Louis kept coming to work long after she developed symptoms of COVID-19, because she was told she wouldn’t be paid otherwise, her family told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She died a few weeks ago.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, making it easier for many American workers to receive paid leave if they get COVID-19, or if they have to care for children who are out of school. For the remainder of the year, employees are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they are quarantined or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and 12 weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of their salary if they are caring for a child whose school or child-care provider is closed.

But the law excludes all sorts of employees. Large companies aren’t included in the law, and small companies can claim an exemption. Employers can supplement what’s required under the law with more expansive leave policies, but some companies are already ending the more generous leave policies that they put in place immediately after the coronavirus outbreak.

Our pandemic approach to sick leave is a continuation of America’s jumbled leave laws, in which your time off largely depends on your employer, not your needs. Because of this patchwork system, Americans are some of the only workers in the Western world who risk getting fired if they don’t drag their sick selves into work. Before the pandemic, a quarter of private-sector workers didn’t have a single paid sick day.

The inconsistent way that America does sick leave will become an even bigger problem as more states open up and companies ask their employees to return to the office. In the coming months, employers will wield remarkable power in determining whether their employees will be at risk of catching COVID-19, and whether they can keep their jobs if they do. As unemployment remains high and companies have more workers to choose from, more people may find themselves losing their jobs if they get sick.

Read the complete article here.