Home > Uncategorized > Coronavirus and the need to think big – posted 3/22/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/29/2020

Coronavirus and the need to think big – posted 3/22/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/29/2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has upended all conventional thinking. A fundamentally different situation demands a different response. What might have made sense a couple months ago, makes no sense now. I think some of the ideas discussed on the Democratic side during the early primary season deserve much more serious consideration.

For example, universal basic income or UBI, the Andrew Yang big idea, comes to mind. How about something like an emergency UBI providing $1000 per adult and $500 per child monthly for as long as the outbreak lasts? We might only need to do it for four to six months but that would insure some degree of economic security. At this point, the duration of the pandemic is not clear but we do need to put checks into the hands of working families immediately.

We especially do not need people who have the virus going into work if they work in food service or health care. UBI would allow infected people to stay home to slow down the spread of the disease. It would be a public health disaster if large numbers of health care workers get sick and still go into work. Our ability to contend with the pandemic requires front line workers who can stay on the job without getting sick.

Many people have suggested expanding unemployment benefits. That is a very good idea as it is a critical countercyclical tool to help with pandemic-related job loss. Unfortunately, unemployment benefit recipiency is very poor in many states. The amount of benefits is also problematic because benefits are so low, especially in the South. Not enough workers eligible for these benefits ever receive them.

Congress and the states need to immediately increase funding to administer unemployment programs. Across the country, state agencies are understaffed and not prepared to deal with the avalanche of claims. Because unemployment rates have been low until recently, state agencies lack personnel to serve the public. Like other states, New Hampshire is desperately struggling just to respond to the number of new filers.

The economic proposals by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are inadequate. A one-time check for $1000 is not enough. It is not realistic given how long this pandemic is likely to last.

A second idea is debt moratorium. No one should be evicted from their apartment or face foreclosure from their home because they lost their jobs and they are temporarily without income. Neither should their utilities be disconnected. From a public health perspective, putting families and individuals on the street or putting them in the dark in a time of pandemic would be very dangerous.

A moratorium on debt should also extend to student loans, medical bills and credit cards. The coronavirus pandemic is a national emergency and the millions who have lost and will lose their jobs are not at fault.

Paid sick leave is another idea whose time has come. About a quarter of U.S. workers get no paid sick leave. This includes many low-wage workers, those who are self-employed and those in gig or transient jobs. The new law just signed by President Trump, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, contains major loopholes. Large companies with more than 500 employees are not mentioned in the bill.

The expectation is that workers in these larger companies can rely on existing sick leave policies, a dubious proposition. Smaller and mid-size companies are required to provide two weeks of paid sick leave and up to twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave for employees affected by the coronavirus who have worked at the company for at least a month.

Sick leave is to be paid at the usual pay rate and paid family and medical leave is to be paid at two-thirds of the usual pay rate.

One big concern is how many small businesses will pay for these benefits at a time of depression. The bill provides a tax credit to cover these costs.

There is a loophole for smaller businesses on the paid family and medical leave. The Labor Department can exempt employers with fewer than fifty workers from having to pay these benefits if it “would jeopardize the viability of the business”.

About 35 million people work for small businesses in the U.S.. 12.6 million of these workers have no paid sick leave and 30.5 million have no family leave.

We need to insure that during the pandemic all workers can get paid sick leave. Knowing Congress, they always carve out exemptions. We cannot afford that now.

Lastly, I would mention the cost of medical care around any coronavirus-related testing or treatment. Medical care must be free. Otherwise, the cost of care becomes a disincentive and people will avoid testing and medical treatment.

Time Magazine just did a story about a lady in Boston , Danni Askini, who was uninsured and who developed flu and pneumonia symptoms. She also had lymphoma. After treatment and testing (it turned out she had Covid-19), she got a bill for $34,927.43! Congress’s new law covers testing costs but it doesn’t address treatment. Askini does plan to apply for Medicaid.

I think it is safe to assume many potential patients would not seek care knowing they will face exorbitant medical bills.

Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the average cost of Covid-19 treatment for someone with employer insurance would be $9763. If there were complications, they estimate the cost could double to $20,292. In either scenario, Kaiser researchers felt patients with employer-based insurance could still expect out-of-pocket costs of more than $1300.

The coronavirus exposes the dark side of capitalism, especially around health care. We have money for a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons which are supposed to keep us safe but where are the masks, gowns, and ventilators? How could we have been caught so unaware? The need for Medicare for all is most exposed now.

In the ongoing discussion about bailouts, we need to ask just who will be bailed out? Will it be the billionaire class, cruise ships airlines and Wall Street? Or will it be everyday working people?

Based on past experience, I expect our leaders will think too small. And I worry it will be the wrong people who will benefit. This is just a beginning stab at what ideas make sense for our unprecedented time. We need more than band-aids. Now is not a time for half-measures.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ellen Phillips
    March 23, 2020 at 10:58 am

    You tell it Jon!

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