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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol January 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Democrats Demand Trump Ensure Paid Sick Leave and Free Testing to Put Workers Over Corporate Profits in COVID-19 Response

"This is a bare-minimum set of policies to prevent a recession and mitigate a public health emergency, and everyone up for re-election will have to tell us which side they're on."

Julia Conley

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday evening called on President Donald Trump to center working Americans in his response to the coronavirus outbreak which has affected at least 545 people in the U.S. so far—promoting a public health agenda that many progressives have called for in recent days.

The Democratic leaders denounced Trump for prioritizing corporate interests in his response to COVID-19 and called for the White House to follow the lead of public health officials by pushing for policies that will allow American workers to stay home if they've been exposed to the respiratory virus without risking their jobs and wages.

Pelosi and Schumer's statement came a week after reports revealed the White House is weighing possible new tax cuts in response to COVID-19 and the plummeting of stock markets—an example of "ideological opportunism," the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) said in a report released Monday.

"President Trump continues to manufacture needless chaos within his administration and it is hampering the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak," Pelosi and Schumer said in a statement. "In light of reports that the Trump administration is considering new tax cuts for major corporations impacted by the coronavirus, we are demanding that the administration prioritize the health and safety of American workers and their families over corporate interests."

The two leaders echoed the calls of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), other progressives, and public health officials in their demand for a response that includes paid sick leave, free coronavirus testing, and anti-price gouging protections as Americans stock up on medical and household essentials. 

The list of demands also included:

  • Enhanced unemployment insurance to support workers who lose their job due to an economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Expanded SNAP, school lunch, and other food security programs to make sure vulnerable Americans don't lose access to nutritious food.
  • Affordable treatment for anyone diagnosed with coronavirus, with all uncovered expenses for treatment reimbursed by the government.
  • Increased capacity in the medical system with a more urgent mobilization of resources and facilities.

Journalist David Dayen, who wrote last week in The American Prospect that "the coronavirus crisis demands progressive governance," called Schumer and Pelosi's demands "a pretty good start."

"This is a bare-minimum set of policies to prevent a recession and mitigate a public health emergency, and everyone up for re-election will have to tell us which side they're on," tweeted Dayen.

In his article last week, Dayen wrote that all coronavirus-related treatment should be free, not simply "affordable" as the Democrats suggested.

"This avoids the spectacle of high medical bills for those who responsibly come into hospitals," Dayen wrote. "High prices will simply push people out of receiving treatment and increase the potential for community spread. It's completely counterproductive to create barriers to access, really ever, but especially during a pandemic."

With their statement, Pelosi and Schumer joined Sanders and workers' rights advocates in pointing out that the COVID-19 outbreak is illustrating the urgent need to pass legislation guaranteeing American workers paid sick leave, as people in other industrialized nations have.

"In the long-run," wrote Josh Bivens of EPI, the outbreak "shines a bright light on how paid sick leave should be a basic mandated labor standard, and policymakers should pass the Healthy Families Act in coming weeks. Besides giving workers the chance to earn sick leave in normal times, this bill also provides for 14 days of paid leave immediately in the current emergency."

As the Financial Times reported last week, a lack of labor protections in the U.S. will likely make the virus spread faster than in other developed countries.

"Public health officials and academics are concerned that a mix of high numbers of uninsured people, a lack of paid sick leave, and a political class that has downplayed the threat could mean it spreads more quickly than in other countries," reported the outlet.

Last week, Trump suggested Americans who have the coronavirus could simply "go to work" and then "get better," flouting guidance by the CDC, which has called on individual employers to institute flexible paid leave policies during the outbreak, in the absense of a federal law mandating that they do so.

"The administration must move more quickly and seriously to address the severe impacts of the coronavirus on the financial security of America's families," said Pelosi and Schumer.

In its report, EPI went further than the Democratic leaders in its suggestion for assisting American workers who are affected by the coronavirus outbreak, calling for an economic stimulus package like the one passed in 2008, which gave $600 checks to individuals and $1,200 for joint tax filers.

"Besides needing money to tide them over when they can't work, low-wage workers could also use protection against being let go by employers when they can't show up to work due to their sickness (or the sickness of family members)," wrote Bivens.


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