Trump Official Effort To Scale Back Virus Relief Backfires

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Prior to the passage of the most recent Coronavirus relief funding package, a group of Republican Senators threatened to vote against the bill because of the ludicrously supposed potential for the expanded unemployment benefits to leave people more keen on getting the benefits than going back to work. The idea that $600 extra a week for unemployed workers would suddenly grind the economy to a halt was already outrageous, but now, Trump’s Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is using that idea to guide the implementation of the relief. He’s prioritizing the brute force of production over potentially lifesaving financial relief for workers, even amidst a deadly pandemic.

Scalia “has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits,” The Washington Post explains. Among other moves, the Labor Department has insisted that so-called gig economy workers — like Uber and Lyft drivers — have to have been “forced to suspend operations” before getting financial assistance, and they’ve allowed more established businesses that choose to deny paid leave to their workers to do so without having to send any justifying paperwork to the government, although they do demand that the businesses keep documentation for their own records.

Scalia has faced heavy criticism for attempting to roll back financial relief for workers. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), for instance, insisted:

Because of #COVID19, more than 16 million Americans have submitted #unemployment claims in the past THREE WEEKS, but #Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is using his authority to limit who qualifies for assistance. This is despicable. We are in the midst of a pandemic!’

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has previously commented similarly, insisting:

‘The Trump administration is twisting the law to allow employers to shirk their responsibility and is significantly narrowing which workers are eligible for paid leave. This simply can’t stand. This guidance needs to be rewritten so workers get the leave they are guaranteed under the law.’

Those outside of government have spoken out as well. Andrew Stettner, a fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, called the Trump administration’s relief implementation plans “criminally narrow.” Former Department of Labor chief economist Heidi Sheirholz — who’s of course in quite a position to speak authoritatively here, given her work history — added that Scalia’s insistence on prioritizing a return to work at the expense of basic financial assistance for struggling workers is “an absolute disgrace.”

President Trump himself, for the record, has offered implicit support to Scalia’s behavior, because even amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, without appropriately large-scale testing regimens in place to help mitigate potential future outbreaks, he has been harping on endlessly about the supposed need to prioritize reopening the economy. At one point, he wanted to reopen the economy by Easter — right in the middle of the peak of the pandemic — but health officials in the administration convinced him to extend federal social distancing guidelines until at least the end of April. That new deadline is fast approaching — and Trump has already insisted that the horrors of the virus “must be quickly forgotten,” as if over 18,700 Americans haven’t already died.