Robert Gehrke: A pandemic is not the time to yank a safety net out from under vulnerable people

Robert Gehrke

This week, my buddy Ken Sanders had to do something he has resisted for a long time. He launched an online fundraiser to try to keep the doors to his iconic bookstore open.

In the past couple of weeks, while my colleagues tally coronavirus deaths, Kathy Stephenson has been writing obituaries for some of Salt Lake’s most popular restaurants — places like Canella’s and the 9th and 9th Mazza.

Since the outbreak began, 132,580 businesses on Yelp! have closed their doors and more than 72,000 of them do not plan to reopen. Researchers at Harvard put the number even higher, estimating 110,000 businesses may be gone for good.

Those closures mean people are out of work. As of last week, more than 85,700 Utahns, about 5% of the workforce, were unemployed. And we’re doing much better than the rest of the country, where about 30 million workers have been impacted.

Since Congress passed its big relief act back in March those workers have enjoyed an extra $600 a week to help pay their rent, utilities and food. That money has run out and Congress is, as always, responding with the grace and efficiency of a walrus riding a scooter.

This week, Senate Republicans finally released a proposed rescue package that unfortunately fails to meet the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing.

There is some good news: Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, this time targeted at small businesses. And there is money for treatment, testing and vaccine development, although they’re billions apart on the right amount.

But there are confounding attempts by Republicans to pinch pennies, none more so than the plan to slash the $600 weekly unemployment benefit down to $200 per month and then requiring states to calculate the benefit based on 70% of the recipient’s pre-COVID income — an administrative headache states have already balked at.

In Utah, unemployment pays, on average, 40% to 50% of what the worker made before. The aim of the $600 was to make those workers whole while we shut down the economy to contain the virus.

Between May and June, more than 50,000 people were able to go back to work, but 85,700 remain unemployed, and now the Republican Senate wants them to survive on 30% less.

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, told me of a friend who had been a bartender and is still out of work — and could be for a while. Under the Republican’s proposed changes, she would get $70 a week in unemployment benefits, which obviously is untenable.

The Republican argument is that cutting the benefit will force people to go back to work — even though the jobs still aren’t there.

In Utah, if a business reopens and an employee refuses to go back to work, the employer reports it to the state and the worker loses the benefit and likely the job, said Kevin Burt, director of the Utah Unemployment Insurance program.

“As far as people refusing work,” he said, “I think that is a little bit overstated.”

At the same time they cut benefits for those in need, both parties want to send another $1,200 stimulus payment to everyone earning less than $75,000, even those who have managed to keep their jobs. We’d get more bang for the buck if that money went to people who were unemployed and could then use it on things like rent — which poses another looming crisis.

A federal moratorium on evictions lapsed last week and Utah’s moratorium expired May 15. Since Utah’s moratorium expired, 747 eviction petitions have been filed in state courts.

The Republican bill does not extend the eviction protection, leaving an estimated 17.6 million American households at risk of losing their home, according to the consulting firm Stout Risius Ross. In Utah alone, a quarter of renters may be unable to pay rent and the firm projects an estimated 47,000 eviction actions in the next four months.

But, sure, let’s pull back unemployment benefits.

Cornia and national hunger advocates had sought meager increases to the food stamp program, about $25 a month per recipient, and an increase from about $16 to $30 for seniors who own their home or disabled Utahns in subsidized housing. Neither was included.

The last resort for those people, she said, are emergency food pantries which already have limited operating hours due to the pandemic and simply aren’t available in parts of the state.

“We’re just setting people up for a long-term fallout from this pandemic,” Cornia said.

CEOs won’t go hungry. The bill doubles the deduction for business lunches. The emergency bill also included funding for a new emergency FBI building that President Donald Trump wanted. It still has $29 billion for the Pentagon, $2.5 billion for systems upgrades at the Treasury Department and renovations of the White House, and $0 for veterans.

The GOP plan also fails to bolster Medicaid funding at a time people need it the most. In Utah, for example, nearly 34,000 more people are enrolled in Medicaid than before the outbreak, according to the Utah Medical Care Advisory Committee.

“Utahns’ need for Medicaid coverage has surged during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Matt Slonaker, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project. “The Senate Republican proposal ignores this growing need. … Their plan doesn’t include the funds states need to help them avert damaging cuts to Medicaid and other critical health services.”

To top it off, the bill has inadequate aid for schools and what assistance is in the bill is linked to schools opening, regardless of risk, and little help for states grappling with their own budget nightmares.

Look, I get it: The government can’t realistically address every issue. And perhaps the House Democrat’s bill, which spends three times as much, is too big.

But we continue to face an economic and public health crisis of historic proportions, one that isn’t going away any time soon. We need a national response proportionate to the challenge and we need it soon, before more Utah businesses fold and more Utahns lose their homes.