The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package today, following up on the last stimulus passed in late March. Released by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, the $3 trillion proposal includes some elements of the so-called Essential Workers Bill of Rights introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) four weeks ago.
The proposed "bill of rights" is a 10-point policy plan to ensure essential workers have "the protections they need, the rights they are entitled to, and the compensation they deserve," Warren said in an April statement. This includes hazard pay, access to protective equipment like masks and gloves, universal paid sick, family and medical leave, and protections for collective bargaining, among other provisions.
Over the past four weeks, the bill of rights has gained backing from more than 75 progressive organizations and several prominent activists. Some elements have also garnered bipartisan support among lawmakers, although insiders predict that conservatives in the House are unlikely to support the proposed relief package due to its size and scope. Meanwhile, some activists and progressive lawmakers argue it does not go far enough.
Last week, actress and activist Jane Fonda's Fire Drill Fridays gathering — which has moved online in the wake of the pandemic — featured Sen. Warren, Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard, and Fonda's "Grace and Frankie" co-star Lily Tomlin, who voiced their support for the Essential Workers Bill of Rights.
"The people who are being hit the hardest by COVID-19 are essential workers," Fonda said during the webcast. "They pick our food. They package our food. They look after our children and our elderly parents. Without them, our lives would become impossible. For life to move smoothly for us, those workers need to feel safe and respected."
Discussions around coronavirus relief have brought a wide scope of issues to the fore, providing an opportunity for activists and progressive lawmakers to make their case for the economic and social policies they've long supported, added Leonard of Greenpeace.
"It is true that COVID-19 has created hardship and horrors for many, many people, but it's also true that it's created openings that we can enter and seize to build a better future," Leonard said.
"For years — for decades, even — activists have been asking elected leaders for these basic things to make our economy more fair, more resilient, more healthy. We've asked for accessible healthcare, for workers' rights, for investments in a just transition to a clean, renewable energy economy. These things are so obviously needed, but it's often hard to even get these issues on the table for discussion. And when we do get them on the table for discussion, too often we hear the same refrain which is, ‘There's no money for that.’
"In these COVID stimulus relief packages, all these things are being discussed. It's an opportunity for all of us to push for the programs and policies that will make our country better."
The advocates encouraged webcast attendees to call their members of Congress in support of the bill of rights. Tomlin called hers, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), live on the webcast, asking him "not to be a jerk" and to support the bill. A growing number of Americans agree with her, as petitions in favor of the bill of rights have collectively garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
"Essential workers are fighting for us, and it's time that we fight for them," Warren added as part of a recorded statement (she was in session during the event).
The proposed House bill up for vote today includes some key provisions from the bill of rights, including hazard pay for healthcare workers, healthcare and economic protections for essential workers regardless of immigration status, protections against eviction and foreclosure for renters and homeowners, funding for COVID-19 testing and treatment, and resources for hospitals.
It would also extend unemployment benefits and provide another round of direct payments to Americans, totaling $1,200 per adult ($2,400 per married couple) and $1,200 each for up to three dependents. A national moratorium on water shutoffs and $1.5 billion for low-income water aid, as well as $25 billion in support for the U.S. Postal Service, are also included in the bill.
Some House conservatives slammed a number of provisions in the 1,800-page bill, including forgiveness of student debt, as an unnecessary overreach. "I'm just mystified why my friends felt the need to inject a clearly partisan bill and think this is going to move us down the road in the right direction. It's not," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said on the House floor today, as quoted by CBS News. Some progressive advocates, however, say the bill could do more.
John Noël, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA, praised the social elements of the proposed bill. But he noted it fails to include key provisions of the ReWIND Act, legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) to prevent oil and gas companies from accessing stimulus funds. "Even this bill fails to put restrictions in place that would close the fossil fuel industry loopholes in the last relief package. Nor does it provide the certainty that all relief will be steered to the frontlines of the crisis and not to failing oil companies," Noël said in a statement.
Likewise, Natalie Mebane, associate policy director for 350 Action, the climate advocacy group founded by Bill McKibben, said "the bill does not go far enough to protect against bailouts of the oil and gas industry." Both 350 and Greenpeace have released their own sets of policy priorities they say will kickstart a "green recovery" from the pandemic while supporting fossil fuel workers who may be displaced.
Dan Lashof, U.S. director of the World Resources Institute (WRI), similarly observed that the bill does not contain relief or protections for clean energy workers, nearly 600,000 of whom have already lost their jobs.
“The House’s recently released $3 trillion bill includes essential support for impacted Americans across the country, but despite targeted support to certain industries, it offers no reprieve to the clean energy industry and the millions of people who support it," Lashof said. “The bill includes cash assistance to biofuel producers, despite their debatable environmental benefits, while failing to provide support to jobs in the wind and solar industries, which have clear and compelling benefits for cleaner air and a safer climate.”
Key elements in the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, including hazard pay for workers on the front lines, are supported on both sides of the political aisle.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Republican Rep. Peter King, both of New York, proposed another piece of legislation to establish a "compensation fund" for essential workers. The bill would “authorize appropriated funds as needed for five years,” Forbes reported.
Whether the House bill passes or not, conversations around essential workers' rights are unlikely to fade. “On September 11th, it was the firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a press statement, as quoted by Forbes. “Today, it is hospital workers — nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians — and all essential workers. We owe them more than applause at 7 p.m.”
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