By Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa
Published in the Detroit News, Nov. 4, 2020
Action in Congress has largely been stuck on pause in recent weeks in the lead up to November election. But while the dust is still settling on those results, one thing is clear – there is no time to waste in approving legislation that will protect workers’ wallets, health and retirement and assist localities and states hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases have started to climb again, many Michiganders are starting to lose their unemployment benefits. An Oct. 22 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found 87,000 less people were receiving state unemployment benefits than at the beginning of the month. While some may take that as good news, it is more likely a sign of those who first lost their jobs in April running out of their 26 weeks of eligibility under the program.
The jobless were already hurting after their benefits were slashed at the end of July when the U.S. Senate refused to pass legislation that would have extended the $600 a week federal boost included in unemployment payments in the wake of the pandemic causing massive shutdowns earlier this year. Efforts to reach are compromise last month were also unsuccessful. Now the unemployed are really up a creek with no paddle in sight.
This, of course, would be bad enough on its own. But it is far from the whole picture. Hardworking Americans also need assistance when it comes to workplace safety and pensions. And the governments that serve them also need a hand.
The Teamsters had been leading the fight to boost protections for workers in the HEROES Act. Congress must require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a temporary emergency standard that covers all workers, including public sector employees in states that have not opted into OSHA coverage, as well as transportation workers not covered by another federal safety agency.
Some 1.5 million Americans, both working and retired, also need assistance to make sure their multi-employer pensions – which they paid into during their working years – remain afloat. The Teamsters have worked closely with House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) over the past several years to craft pension reform legislation that would stabilize funds like the union’s Central States Plan. That bill, known as the Butch Lewis Act, passed the House with bipartisan support in July 2019 but has remained stalled in the Senate.
The HEROES Act before the Senate also included a multiemployer pension fix, although the Teamsters were disappointed with the inclusion of composite GROW Act language.
Meanwhile, local and state governments are in dire need of additional funds so they can continue to provide much-needed services and employ the workers who are involved in such duties. These institutions are being threatened by decreasing tax revenues and an increase in spending to provide such things as personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing.
The HEROES Act provided those funds, allowing states and localities to use federal monies to address revenue loss and not just unanticipated COVID-19 related expenses. This flexibility would have helped states to avoid mass layoffs and furloughs that would worsened the recession, delayed recovery, and undercut public health response efforts.
The Teamsters urge lawmakers to cast aside the “lame duck” moniker used to describe the final months of the congressional session and instead further empower people and government entities in desperate need of leadership from Washington. That is what it will take to get America back on its feet again.