The coronavirus (COVID-19), has shaken countries around world and impacted the well-being of millions of people. It also threatens to spark a recession. Uncertainty grows as communities struggle to respond to this pandemic. Although Congress recently passed an $8 billion package, that legislation is insufficient.
Policymakers on Capitol Hill are quickly drafting another bill to stimulate the economy and assist individuals and communities affected by the outbreak. This legislation needs to focus on those who most need assistance, and whose jobs and situations do not provide the resources or flexibility to weather a time of self-quarantine. It must also account for shifting caregiving responsibilities and the possibility of an economic downturn.
Low-wage workers who deal with the public are the most likely to be exposed to infection. Yet, they are the least likely to have paid sick leave. School closings will leave children without access to school meals. As people across the country limit their public exposure and reduce their consumption, the economy will suffer, further threatening the livelihoods of individuals already struggling to get by.
Unlike previous economic downturns, this crisis requires a unique response to address both public health and economic challenges.
We urge Congress to adhere to these principles in crafting legislation that addresses the coronavirus pandemic and stimulates the economy:
- Ensure access and affordable testing and treatment for the coronavirus, regardless of income, location, disability, or immigration status.
- Ensure people have the support they need to take sick leave and care for family members without risking their jobs or their paychecks.
- Ensure low-income workers and individuals facing hardship have the assistance they need to put food on the table and provide for their families.
- Give special care and attention to individuals at increased risk of infection, including individuals in prison, in detention, in long-term care facilities, and experiencing homelessness.
- Focus economic stimulus measures on low-income and vulnerable communities. Such policies have the strongest economic impact.
- Ensure that emergency assistance for low-wage workers and vulnerable individuals comes before any bailouts for major industries and businesses.
- Oppose any efforts to use the pandemic as an excuse to further militarize the border or exacerbate immigration deportation and detention.
Following these principles, we believe it is essential that Congress first and foremost:
- Enact paid sick and family leave for all workers. In the U.S., more than 32 million workers lack access to paid sick days. Most are low-wage workers, 70 percent of whom don’t have access to paid sick days. Ensuring every working individual has access to fourteen days of paid sick leave enables all workers to follow the CDC’s guidance that anyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus self-quarantine for 14 days.
- Increase and expand access to nutrition assistance to prevent families and individuals experiencing hardship from going hungry. The CDC recommends people stockpile two weeks of food, but families living paycheck-to-paycheck cannot afford to do so. Others may be facing reduced paychecks because of reduced hours, and school closures will leave children without access to school lunches and breakfasts.
- Implement the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Increase SNAP benefit levels, one of the most effective ways to help stimulate the economy
- Strengthen and modernize Unemployment Insurance to provide higher benefits, account for the changing workforce (such as the gig economy), and cover workers who may lose their jobs or face new caregiving responsibilities because of the coronavirus pandemic. The government should ensure individuals can more quickly access their benefits. Give states additional administrative funding to efficiently run the program in the wake of increased need.
- Increase health care funding for states so they can adequately respond. Congress should increase the federal Medicaid match to states and establish a state stabilization fund so states can adequately address the increased demand for healthcare. In the 2009 Recovery Act, the Federal Government picked up all of states’ Medicaid costs. Doing so again would enable frontline states and local governments to provide the services needed to handle this pandemic.
In addition, Congress should:
- Provide targeted rebate or stimulus checks directed at low- and moderate-income individuals to most effectively boost the economy. A stimulus check, such as what was included in the 2008 stimulus package, is more targeted than a payroll tax cut and doesn’t threaten Social Security. It should be refundable and available to individuals without earnings. A payroll tax cut is slower, less targeted, does not help people who have lost their jobs. If implemented, Congress must replenish the Social Security Trust Fund.
- Fund work-sharing, which allows businesses to cut hours instead of implementing layoffs. Workers can keep their jobs and maintain their incomes supplemented by Unemployment Insurance.
- Increase funding for McKinney-Vento grants and the Disaster Housing Assistance Program to reduce the number of people living in homeless encampments and more quickly get people into affordable homes. Individuals experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of serious infection because they cannot self-quarantine and often lack access to running water and other methods to prevent infection.
- Provide funding to keep childcare centers in business and support educators if parents unenroll their children or cannot pay their childcare bills.
- Boost benefits and waive the physical presence requirement for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and enable families to get their benefits remotely.
- Provide funding for tests, treatment, and quarantine so that those without health insurance can access them. No one should have to worry about the costs of testing and treatment.
The administration should also immediately suspend the new administrative regulations that prevent individuals from accessing SNAP and Medicaid if they aren’t working. It should suspend the existing SNAP time limits so individuals who lose their jobs for an extended period can still access SNAP. The administration should also immediately suspend the public charge regulation, which threatens to separate immigrant families that access critical services, such as Medicaid and SNAP.
As people of faith, we hold in the Light all healthcare workers, people who are exposed or are undergoing treatment, and our government as we cope with the coronavirus pandemic.