Jack Hoffman: People working during the pandemic need a living wage too

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The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill will keep the wolf from the door for millions of people who can't work and businesses forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic — at least for a while. Congress rightly recognized its first priority is to see that people with no money coming in have enough to live on.

Now we must do the same for those who are still working.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act targets aid to individuals through changes to the unemployment insurance system and through direct payments. There are a lot of fine-print details around the unemployment changes. But the main provisions are:

- $600 a week in federal unemployment compensation, to be paid on top of state unemployment benefits through July 31.

- A 13-week extension of state unemployment benefits for those who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of compensation.

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- Expansion of unemployment insurance to temporarily cover many people who do not qualify for benefits under the regular program, such as people who are self-employed or independent contractors.

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- Federal support for a work-sharing option — known as "short-time compensation" — that allows employers to retain workers through a combination of reduced hours and partial unemployment benefits.

The direct payments will be one-time checks or direct deposits of $1,200 for each adult and $500 for each child. More than 80 percent of households are expected to receive the payments — single taxpayers with incomes up to $75,000 and couples with incomes up to $150,000. The plan is to make the direct-deposit payments in the next few weeks.

Already there has been grumbling that some workers — those making minimum wage, for example — will get more in unemployment compensation than they were making when they were working. These complaints miss the purpose of the CARES Act, which is less of a stimulus and more economic anti-freeze. People who are being directed to stay home need to eat, pay the rent or mortgage, make car payments, pay utility bills, buy prescriptions, and maybe see a doctor. Just because some workers couldn't afford all of those things on a minimum wage job is no reason to deny them money to live on for the next four months.

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We should think of this as paying people to stay home during a pandemic, which will help save our own lives.

And now we also need to turn our efforts to the people who are continuing to work in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices, and scores of public jobs. They won't get federal unemployment compensation because they're still doing essential work. They will receive the one-time payment, which will be a help. But we also need to make sure that they, too, are paid enough to live on and support their families during this crisis.

Sometime soon, Vermont's minimum wage needs to ensure that all workers have a livable income. In the meantime, Vermont needs to set a livable, minimum wage for essential workers, possibly with state assistance, including school, municipal, and county employees, and perhaps others. They, also, deserve help from the rest of us to get through this pandemic.

Jack Hoffman is a senior analyst at the Public Assets Institute in Montpelier. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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