Negotiators report progress in coronavirus  relief talks

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., gives Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., an elbow bump Saturday as Schumer leaves a meeting at the Capitol with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on a COVID-19 relief bill.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief bill Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore an expired $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

“This was the longest meeting we’ve had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was part of the rare weekend session. “We’re not close yet, but it was a productive discussion — now each side knows where they’re at.”

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The Democratic leaders are eager for an expansive agreement, as are President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps one half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

Prior talks had yielded little progress and Saturday’s cautious optimism was a break from gloomy private assessments among GOP negotiators. The administration is willing to extend the newly expired $600 jobless benefit, at least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands like aid for state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to renters and homeowners.

Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for voting by mail after the negotiating session was over. She and Schumer appeared more upbeat than they have after earlier meetings.

“We have to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, safely open our schools, and to do so in a way that does not give a cut in benefits to American workers,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin said restoring the $600 supplemental jobless benefit is critically important to Trump. “We’re still a long ways apart and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent because it is not,” Meadows said afterward. “There are still substantial differences, but we did make good progress.”

The additional jobless benefit officially lapsed on Friday, and Democrats have made clear that they will not extend it without securing other relief priorities. Whatever unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be made retroactive — but antiquated state systems are likely to take weeks to restore the benefits.

Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 benefit, saying it must be slashed so that people don’t make more in unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But their resolve weakened as the benefit expired, and Trump abruptly undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 for now.

On Friday, Trump used Twitter to explicitly endorse extending the $600 payment and to criticize Schumer.

Washington’s top power players agree that Congress must pass further relief in the coming days and weeks. At stake beyond the $600 per week jobless benefit is a fresh $1,200 direct payment to most Americans, and hundreds of billions of dollars in other aid to states, businesses and the poor, among other elements.

Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand — exploiting GOP divisions — and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.

The COVID package will be the fifth legislative response to the pandemic and could well be the last one before the November election. The only other must-pass legislation on the agenda is a stopgap spending measure that should advance in September.

Since May, Republicans controlling the Senate had kept the relief negotiations on “pause” in a strategy aimed at reducing its price tag. But as the pandemic surged back over the summer — and as fractures inside the GOP have eroded the party’s negotiating position — Republicans displayed some greater flexibility.

Even with signs of progress in the talks, the list of items to negotiate remains daunting.

McConnell’s must-have item is a liability shield from lawsuits for businesses, schools, and charities that reopen as the pandemic goes on. The GOP’s business allies are strong backers but the nation’s trial lawyers retain considerable clout in opposition. A compromise is probably a challenging but necessary part of a final deal.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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George Welland

IT'S NOT JUST THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT THAT NEEDS TO ACT: States Need To Stop Colluding With Business To Deprive Workers!

IN OTHER WORDS, NOT JUST MORE BENEFITS BUT ALSO PAY MORE WORKERS (UNTIL THERE ARE MORE JOBS AGAIN)!

Given the impact of the tourism and energy sectors on New Mexico's economy, expect high unemployment for a while (especially if Covid rates don't decline); but despite the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) and Coronavirus Aid Relief & Economic Security Act (CARES) to liberalize state unemployment insurance (UI) laws, none of New Mexico's UI laws have been amended; and the lack of action by state officials is disturbing! The UI program should have been changed a long time ago to pay all who are unemployed (all except those fired for cause or quit without good reason).

I repeat, "PAY ANY WORKER WHO WASN'T FIRED FOR CAUSE, AND THOSE QUITTING FOR COMPELLING REASONS." It'd be good health and economic policy to pay people to just stay home until Covid-19 is better understood. Contrary to employers who use workers as props to protest closures, such closings may better serve everyone. Sadly, the $600.00 federal bonus is a casualty of the unsubstantiated claim it deters recipients from seeking work? As for the demagoguery of paying bonuses to those who return to work, would that include payouts to next of kin for hospital and/or funerary costs, to balance granting businesses immunity from Covid lawsuits? Arguably, the state needs to liberalize UI laws in order to facilitate stay-at-home orders, particularly for workers in the hospitality and tourism industries. Perhaps there could be more relief for non-essential businesses like bars and tattoo parlors, but only if they stay closed. Health hazards masquerading as commerce (that were unable to adopt sanitary procedures despite government handouts) should be allowed to fail. Workers from those industries could be trained to perform new needed services from contract tracing to child care and tutoring (or even perform volunteer and community service instead of looking for traditional low paying service sector jobs). With growing income inequality; and rising housing and health care costs, there's a need for greater economic security; but short of guaranteed income and health care, then liberalizing UI may be the only way to deal with business cycles, national emergencies, and poverty.

Unfortunately, our UI programs are intentionally complex, punitive, and designed to delay and deny benefits in order to keep payroll taxes low and subject employees to the whims of their employers. Although the $600.00 federal bonus may be gone in whole or part, state laws can still be changed to help individuals and the economy. The current system of helping individuals and their families is just a feel-good component of the program; because it's not sufficient without the federal bonus and additional weeks; but the real point of UI (since its inception, albeit now only because it's greatly expanded under the CARES Act) is to improve the overall economy by helping as many individuals as possible!

Current UI laws punish workers who quit to take care of family members, unless directly due to Covid, while quitting due to other illnesses don't qualify, or lack of transportation, or typical household emergencies. Even if your spouse is injured in a car accident and you quit because you don't have approved leave to care for him or her, then you'll be disqualified from UI. Until Covid, everyone was disqualified for quitting to care for ill dependents, and many remain disqualified until they purge the disqualification. There are only a few (federally mandated) personal circumstance for quitting, that allow benefits; and again, these are very few*; but during a pandemic there should be very few reasons to NOT pay benefits. e.g., discharge for cause and quitting without good reason! If you quit without notice (let's say to go fishing), you'd be disqualified from benefits, just as if you quit to take care of an aging parent, but in either case you could re-qualify. The original disqualification can be purged by working again, earning five times your weekly benefit amount, and filing to re-open your claim if you're not at fault for the new separation. The problem with this is it entices employers to collude with employees to game the system (maybe subsidizing a group's hunting trip) or worse, large scale fraud! Meanwhile, single parents with kids never re-qualify as they become indentured servants to temporary help firms. The same could be true for someone who quits to care for an elderly relative to keep them out of a nursing home (to avoid Covid). Even in normal times the notion of ensuring perpetual temporary servitude makes the system appear forgiving but belies the practical reality that many forego seeking benefits unless they know in advance that they're eligible. The chance of being disqualified cause many to forego filing a claim until they're eligible and need UI, rather than repeating the application process. Thus, being able to purge a disqualification is rather meaningless from the start and more of an administrative convenience for the state UI office and staffing agencies. Shockingly, a refusal to accept certain jobs over fears of infection has even been grounds to stop paying UI!

Politicians and employers in this state must know what's going on; but they do nothing or are satisfied with the present arrangement, even during a pandemic or recession when there are no jobs (hence the work search requirement was waived); so a denial of benefits awaits those who quit, until they meet the impossible task of finding another job, earning five times their weekly benefit amount, and avoid having to quit again? BUT HOW DO DISQUALIFIED WORKERS RE-QUALIFY DURING A PANDEMIC WHEN THERE ARE NO JOBS TO PAY ENOUGH TO REMOVE THE DISQUALIFICATION! Furthermore, what's the point, since there is no retroactive payment of weeks claimed for previously disqualified weeks, clearly the whole re-qualification process is a ruse? This has been pointed out to state officials, but apparently their attitude is, "Let them eat cake, if they can find it at the food bank!" The compassionate and reasonable thing to do is to grant benefits to those who quit for compelling personal reasons for as long as the pandemic exists (to coincide with waiving the work search and paying the "waiting week"). The mere appearance of being compassionate does not help the individual, but more people with actual income supports the entire economy. Remember this if the school year doesn't resume as normal! Additionally, a requirement to stay home could reduce or disqualify benefits for those who fail to wear masks or attend large public gatherings (in other words the carrot and stick of UI laws could be to promote public health as much help individuals and the economy).

Life under a pandemic is reaching a point where closing things down again without liberalizing jobless benefits would be both cruel and folly! The corporate welfare of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) temporarily paid employers to keep workers on the job (usually at reduced hours with make-work of cleaning while exposing themselves to others, instead of preparing for new ways of doing business), but employees should have been allowed to go home, stay safe, and take care of their families (and receive the higher UI they'll need). Eviction moratoriums and subsidizing a couple of months of wages was wasted because we didn't understand the virus or proper quarantine and protection, but if lock downs had been instituted earlier and longer, then we'd might have reduced the unemployment rolls, along with hospitalizations, and deaths. The impact of clothing more workers with greater economic security through liberalized UI laws is analogous to everyone wearing face masks, it literally covers more people and protects the entire population. Congress rightly increased and expanded jobless benefits, although PPP expenditures were dubious, but hopefully Congress will provide more direct relief to workers. Likewise, New Mexico's UI laws need to be reformed to pay workers who quit for valid personal reasons (even if only temporarily during the pandemic or as partial awards). Thereby the UI program could promote the true interests of the entire state by paying jobless benefits as much as for job loss through no fault of one's own personal situation; plus promote public health for adhering to a quarantine; and reducing the social cost of caring for workers' families as well as the macro-economic risks to their landlords and other creditors.

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Footnote* - The few non work-related personal reasons are: quitting due to pregnancy; relocating with a military spouse who's been transferred; & domestic abuse (although the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act of 2009 also encouraged states to adopt eligibility rules for taking care of sick family members).

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