As the Senate moved toward passing a $2 trillion stimulus package on Wednesday, Republican senators held a press conference to warn against passing the bill as written, noting that unemployment benefits would create an incentive for workers to leave their jobs. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) threatened to block the bill unless the Republicans drop these “anti-worker objections.”
“This drafting error made me pause for a moment,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said, referring to the provision that unemployed workers should be paid $600 in addition to normal unemployment payments. “We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than they do in employment.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned, “lots of the important industries in America have median wages which are lower than what would happen under the unemployment benefits portion of that bill. So we don’t actually want to accelerate the severing of the employee-employer.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expressed doubt that the provision was merely a “drafting error.”
“Very few people are going to turn down a $24/hour deal not to work than work for $15/hour,” he warned. “We have incentivized people not to go back to work.”
“The American people do not think you should get paid more money to not work than to work, and the American people understand the stated purposes of this bill are to maintain the employer-employee relationship,” Sasse insisted. “If we do something now that says the new baseline American assumption is the government should say … we want people to get more money to not work than to work, the American people do not want that to happen.”
2:00 PM Press Conference
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) March 25, 2020
Yet as Graham feared, there were warning signs that Democrats supported the idea that Americans should get paid more on unemployment than for their employment.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) celebrated a Slate article reporting on the extra $600 in unemployment payments.
“Because Democrats insisted on these changes, the assistance to people, workers in businesses small, medium, large, the self-employed, freelancers, or gig workers is not just a one-shot deal, but a paycheck that will go on for as long as the crisis lasts,” he tweeted.
Because Democrats insisted on these changes, the assistance to people, workers in businesses small, medium, large, the self-employed, freelancers, or gig workers is not just a one-shot deal, but a paycheck that will go on for as long as the crisis lasts.https://t.co/92NNUJVVey
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) March 25, 2020
Indeed, shortly after Graham, Sasse, Scott, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) gave their press conference, Sanders issued a statement “reacting to Republican threats to hold Coronavirus package hostage.”
Unless the Republican senators “drop their anti-worker objections to fast-tracking the emergency coronavirus legislation, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today that he is prepared to put a hold on this legislation to impose strong conditions on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund.”
“In my view, it would be an outrage to prevent working-class Americans to receive the emergency unemployment assistance included in this legislation,” Sanders said in the statement. “Unless these Republican Senators drop their objections, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund to make sure that any corporation receiving financial assistance under this legislation does not lay off workers, cut wages or benefits, ship jobs overseas, or pay workers poverty wages.”
Unless Republican Senators drop their objections to the coronavirus legislation, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund. pic.twitter.com/7X0o9C4BoO
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 25, 2020
Given Sanders’ view of any wage below the $15/hour wage as a “starvation wage,” it seems likely he will not support the bill without that minimum wage increase — especially since it was one of the Christmas wish-list items House Democrats smuggled into their bill on Monday.
Sanders’ decision to leap into action seems particularly noteworthy since he skipped a key procedural vote on the bill on Monday, choosing instead to appear in a live stream with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). He spoke from his home in Vermont.
As PJ Media’s Stephen Green noted, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled this morning that she would hold up the Senate bill in the House, not voting on it until Thursday.
On the unemployment issue, liberal media figures joined Sanders in attacking the Republicans.
“They’re worried low wage workers might get TOO MUCH MONEY during a period when the economy is might contract by 25% and unemployment might his Great Depression levels. Real Galaxy Brain stuff,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted.
They're worried low wage workers might get TOO MUCH MONEY during a period when the economy is might contract by 25% and unemployment might his Great Depression levels. Real Galaxy Brain stuff. https://t.co/FuQinJ2kA8
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 25, 2020
The New York Times‘s Binyamin Appelbaum dismissed the Republicans’ concerns over “a problem that doesn’t exist because YOU CAN’T GET UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS BY LEAVING YOUR JOB VOLUNTARILY.”
Congratulations to everyone participating in this inane debate about a problem that doesn't exist because YOU CAN'T GET UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS BY LEAVING YOUR JOB VOLUNTARILY. https://t.co/AvKZhljPPA
— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) March 25, 2020
Both Appelbaum and Hayes seem to have forgotten that while unemployment benefits only kick in when a worker gets fired or laid off — not when he or she quits voluntarily — higher unemployment benefits could still provide workers an incentive not to take another job until after the crisis. Graham, Sasse, Scott, and Scott have valid concerns that need to be addressed.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.