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How Many Straws Will It Take to Break the Backs of the Unemployed?

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The economic news today hit home like a ton of bricks — if you’re lucky enough to have a home and can afford a roof over your head. The United States is not only in a free fall with the virus, but our economy is nose-diving as well. This, as the nation’s unemployed are treated cruelly and callously by the Republicans and the Trump administration.

It is living hell to be laid off, furloughed, fired, or not wanted. In fact, it can be down right inhumane. If you or someone you know is unemployed and relying on the federal government’s weekly $600 check as part of the stimulus package that is due to expire tomorrow, then you are surely aware of the angst that exists and the sheer malice of the Republicans and the administration in not re-upping the money.

Nearly 30 million Americans, as of this writing, are unemployed and receiving that benefit, and this number is likely to go much higher. The surging virus is prompting many more states to veer toward lockdown again, causing many small businesses to close since they cannot sustain themselves through another shutdown. It’s heartbreaking and it’s tragic.

In the midst of all of this unease and uncertainty, the Republicans and the administration are offering you two options. First, the Senate thinks that most people remain out of work because they are living the high life on that $600-a-week assistance. They bizarrely want to incentivize the out-of-work to go back to a job that still doesn’t exist by only providing $200 a week in help. That way, because you can’t pay your rent or your bills, or buy groceries, you will somehow be “forced” to go back to work. And what if that job isn’t there anymore? 

Well, that’s where the other pitiless option comes in, in the form of an initiative from the administration, represented by presidential adviser — scratch that — ding-a-ling daughter Ivanka Trump called “Find Something New.” 

According to the website, FindSomethingNew.org was created in cooperation with leading private, public, and nonprofit sector partners to help you find employment, noting that “whether you’re entering the workforce for the first time or need to pivot and retrain, skills-based education can put you on the fast track to an in-demand career.”

That’s just so ignorantly easy in Ivanka’s uncaring and out-of-touch mind. Because most of us don’t have the time, money, and resources to do just that. The vast, vast majority of the unemployed don’t have a daddy to finance our do-overs and time to waste trying to feed our families, pay our bills, and cling to any health insurance. We have to grab anything to survive.

People in the service industry have been the ones mostly adversely affected by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and when one business closes, like a restaurant, there's a domino effect — others on the block or in the community will likely close too if the crowds cease to come.

For some background, I contacted the out president of the Service Employees International Union, Mary Kay Henry, about the Republicans' obscene lack of concern and all that stems from their inaction to address the crisis at hand.

SEIU is the second largest union in the United States and represents nearly 2 million workers in over 100 occupations, organizing workers in three sectors: health care (over half of members work in the health care field), public services, and property services, which includes janitors, security officers, and food service workers. 

Henry is the first LGBTQ+ person (she's a lesbian) and first woman to lead the union, which she has helmed since 2010. She is the cofounder of SEIU's Lavender Caucus, a gay and lesbian group within the international union dedicated to improving rights for LGBTQ+ people within unions and at the workplace.

I began by asking Henry about the latest grim economic news. “Just this morning, Americans found out that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits has increased for the second week in a row, underscoring why Congress needs to pass another relief package quickly,” she said.  

What gives? I asked. Why isn’t Congress, specifically the Republican Party, jumping up and down to help? “The past four months have been a shock to the system that has awakened most Americans to the magnitude of the underlying crises — health, economic, and racial — facing working Americans. Congressional Republicans’ refusal to extend the full pandemic unemployment insurance or provide enough funding so that state and local governments don’t have to lay people off shows they still don’t understand the realities working people face.”

She’s right. When you have the likes of wealthy white men like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the ruthless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insulated and isolated in their ivory towers, casting aspersions upon the working class, the reality is that they are only protecting themselves. 

“Instead of protecting the health and safety of essential workers, the Republican proposal puts them at greater risk by letting employers off the hook for unsafe workplaces,” Henry pointed out. “It also does not include hazard pay, does little to address personal protective equipment shortages, and does nothing to extend paid sick and emergency leave to health care workers, workers at big companies, or emergency responders.”

I asked Henry if she knew of any examples from members of her union who are being hurt by the Republicans’ actions. “Yes, but first, slashing the lifeline of pandemic unemployment insurance would force people back to work at the very moment we need them to stay home and safe. People like Rita Blalock, who works at a McDonald’s in Raleigh, N.C., and was living paycheck to paycheck even before coronavirus. Her hours were cut in half back in March and the federal unemployment has been a lifeline, helping her survive this crisis.”

Everyone — scientists, economists, small-own community leaders, and anyone with a brain, really — understands that the virus must be corralled and quelled before we can start revving up the economy. “President Trump presented a false choice between our health and the economy, just as he’s trying to do with schools,” Henry said. “We should always have been listening to the medical experts and letting them lead the response. Because we did not do that, at least 150,000 Americans are dead, with communities of color shouldering the worst burden.”

The question seemed obvious, but the answer bears repeating: What, I asked Henry, can those who are affected or those who know somebody hurt by the Republicans’ lack of action do in order to force them to restore the benefits and do the right thing? 

“Everyone needs to call their member of Congress and senators, and urge them to pass a bill that’s at least as strong as the HEROES Act. The differences between the HEROES Act and Sen. McConnell’s bill make it crystal clear what is at stake this November.”

John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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