The GOP HEALS Act fails to heal people harmed by the coronavirus, will cost millions of jobs, and protects bad employers
Yesterday, Senate Republicans unveiled their coronavirus relief plan—almost two and a half months after the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act. Aside from the reckless and unconscionable delay, the HEALS Act fails miserably on two crucial objectives: supporting the people most harmed by the coronavirus recession and ensuring a robust economic recovery.
The bill’s failure to provide any aid to state and local governments is a glaring weakness. This will mean drastic cuts to essential services like health care, education and public safety when people need them the most. It will also cost 5.3 million jobs in both the public and private sectors by the end of 2021, as public sector cuts and layoffs cause major fallout in the private sector as well.
Another of the bill’s abject failures on the dual objectives of helping people harmed by the global pandemic and supporting the economy is its gutting of unemployment insurance benefits.
The bill slashes the extra $600 of weekly unemployment insurance benefits — which was designed to make sure the average worker received 100% of their prior earnings — to $200. This represents a major drop in living standards for millions of Americans, forcing people to survive on far less than they had been earning prior to the pandemic and cut spending on necessities — with negative ripple effects throughout the economy, a gut punch to small businesses and communities.
The $400 per week cut in unemployment benefits will mean others will lose their jobs, too: that $400 was supporting 3.4 million jobs. The bill also unconscionably, ends all federal expansions of unemployment benefits at the end of this year; not just the extra payment, but also Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which expands eligibility to people who are not eligible for regular state UI, like gig workers, and the additional 13-week extension of regular state benefits.
That Senate Republicans feel that the end of this year — with a lame duck Congress, a presidential election that might be contested, and an unemployment rate that will likely be in double digits — is a reasonable time for negotiating another round of relief speaks to their utter disregard for the people who have lost their jobs in a global pandemic and depend on those benefits to make ends meet.
Even more disgraceful, the people who will be hurt the most by these cuts are Black and brown workers, who have seen far more job loss in this recession than other workers. The Senate Republican bill will thus exacerbate already deep racial and ethnic inequalities.
There are many other failings of the proposal:
- The bill also heightens the approaching eviction crisis by cutting benefits at a critical juncture.
- The bill also neglects to put crucial provisions in place to reopen the economy successfully: there is not enough money for testing, tracing and childcare.
- The bill fails to mandate an emergency workplace health and safety standard to protect workers from the virus.
- The bill does, however, grant legal immunity to employers who fail to protect their workers, a blatant example of Senate Republicans exploiting the coronavirus crisis to forward a long-standing agenda aimed at shielding corporations from legal liability. To be clear, removing legal accountability from businesses would jeopardize the health and safety of workers and consumers and threaten the economic recovery.
The bill also includes, by omission or commission, a host of other harmful provisions, including Senator Mitt Romney’s TRUST Act, which is a way to fast-track Social Security and Medicaid cuts; zero support for the U.S. Postal Service; and a dangerous proposal that will rush the timeline for the 2020 Decennial Census, shortchanging non-response follow-up activities which are crucial to accurate counts of people of color and low-income people.
This bill will lead to deep and prolonged pain. Congressional leaders should reject it and immediately act to pass a package that will actually provide relief to the economy and the people and families who comprise it.
Thea Lee is the president of the Economic Policy Institute, which first published this commentary.