As Congress negotiates the next round of coronavirus relief legislation, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is calling on the federal government to address the needs of struggling families.
The pandemic, now in its sixth month, continues to rage across the nation, taking its toll on both public health and the economy.
Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been doing battle over the specifics of the proposed $3 trillion legislation, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act.
“The House [of Representatives] passed the HEROES Act two-and-a-half months ago. That means Sen. [Mitch] McConnell has had more than enough time to bring it to the floor for debate and/or to present a workable alternative,” Gillibrand said in a video conference call Wednesday afternoon. “Instead, he has dragged his feet.”
The virus outbreak that began in mid-March and continues unabated nationwide has caused the largest contraction of the economy in recent memory, Gillibrand said.
“More than 31 million Americans were out of work last month and receiving unemployment insurance,” she said.
The level of unemployment insurance benefits provided by the Heroes Act is among the most hotly contested differences between Republican and Democratic elected officials. Under the CARES Act — the first pandemic relief legislation — those who lost their jobs during the outbreak became eligible for an additional $600 weekly in unemployment insurance, above the standard amount they would otherwise have received. Democrats want to maintain unemployment benefits at that same level, while Republicans want to reduce the additional amount people receive to $200.
Republicans argue that the enhanced benefits are discouraging some people from going back to work, opting instead to continue receiving unemployment benefits.
Gillibrand said that argument ignores many currently collecting unemployment do not have a job to go back to.
“Extending the $600 unemployment insurance should be a priority, and priority No. 1,” Gillibrand said. “Arguments that the enhanced benefits keep people from going back to work ignore the fact that many industries and jobs have not come back yet, and that millions can’t return to work.”
Even with those additional benefits, Americans have still been struggling with finances, child care, economic uncertainty and more, Gillibrand said. One in five families can’t put food on the table, and one in three have missed a rent payment, she said.
“More than 29 million American households didn’t get enough to eat in the last week. More than 14 million people are behind on rent, and the services those Americans rely on from their state and local governments are in jeopardy,” she said.
Gillibrand, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been calling on the federal government to come to the aid of states and municipalities whose budgets have been strained by a loss of revenue as the economy remained shut down for an extended time, as well as increased expenses for virus testing, overtime for local health officials, and other expenses. The budget shortfalls for states nationwide are projected to reach around $500 billion.
“Any plan to provide relief must address those fundamental needs,” Gillibrand said. “Instead, Sen. McConnell is focusing on providing businesses with blanket liability protection that would exempt them from even the most egregious actions.”
Liability protection would shield employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, said in a statement that he, too, has been hearing from people in his district who are struggling during the protracted public health crisis, and wants the federal government to come to the aid of states and municipalities that have substantial budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.
“As negotiations continue, I am laser-focused on ensuring communities of every size can access much-needed federal funding. This is why I introduced the bipartisan Direct Support for Communities Act, which passed the House as part of the HEROES Act,” Delgado said.
He is calling on the federal government to support municipalities during the pandemic so local governments can continue to provide essential services despite budget shortfalls.
“I will keep urging my colleagues to understand how critical federal funding is to support vital services that ensure the health and economic well-being of our communities,” Delgado said. “The fact that the Senate Republicans’ proposal doesn’t offer a single new cent in federal relief while our counties face a dire fiscal future is an outrage. We must be better than this. Our communities need relief, not partisan posturing,” said Delgado.
Passing legislation that supports struggling individuals and families cannot wait, Gillibrand said, urging extension of the eviction moratorium to protect families that are in danger of losing their homes.
“This is not an issue that can wait for a solution,” she said. “You can’t provide a meal for your family retroactively.”
While the two parties are battling over specifics of the HEROES Act, there is common ground, Gillibrand said, specifically sending another round of $1,200 in stimulus checks to eligible families nationwide.
Gillibrand is also seeking $50 billion in federal funding to stabilize child care providers looking to safely reopen their doors to support families as they return to the workplace, and expansion of SNAP benefits to provide food for needy families.
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.