Democratic Party leaders in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday called on the Trump administration's Labor Department to do everything in its power to immediately get unemployment checks into the hands of millions of out-of-work Americans who recently lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed the nation's economy.
In a letter (pdf) sent to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joined with Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York to demand answers to key questions amid the coronavirus outbreak and the record-shattering flood of unemployment claims that have resulted from the economic fallout that has swept the nation.
"At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to shut down and has brought our economy to a virtual stand-still, it is absolutely imperative that the millions of Americans who are eligible for unemployment benefits receive every dollar to which they are entitled as quickly as possible," the letter states. "These benefits are absolutely essential to ensuring that families all over this country are able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads."
As Common Dreams reported, last week's unemployment figures showed the largest single-week increase in unemployment claims in American history, with an estimated 3.3 million people filing for benefits. While staggering, economists have warned those job losses are just the "tip of the iceberg."
"Do you have a plan to make sure that eligible Americans are able to receive their benefits within two weeks of applying?" the senators asked of Scalia in their letter. "If yes, please share your plan with us. If no, please let us know how long you expect it will take for eligible Americans to receive their benefits and what Congress could do to speed up the process."
Wyden is ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, while Sanders—also a Democratic presidential candidate—is ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.
Millions are losing their jobs and need urgent help to feed their families. They cannot afford delays.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 1, 2020
Congress passed the largest unemployment expansion in history.
Now the Labor Department must do everything in its power to ensure people have their benefits within two weeks. pic.twitter.com/FpyQvcFtPf
Included in the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—which the senators in their letter noted provides the largest expansion of unemployment benefits in U.S. history—the federal government will now supplement every state's unemployment benefits by up to $600 a week for recipients, and expand eligibility for the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, and others with inconsistent job histories.
While Wyden, Sanders, and Schumer said it's "good news" that relief is on the way for struggling families, "The bad news is that due to the unprecedented increase in demand, there are increasing reports of jammed phone lines and crashed websites at unemployment offices across the country."
The letter continued:
During these incredibly stressful times, it is our obligation to make sure that every eligible American is able to apply for unemployment benefits as efficiently as possible and that their benefits are sent to them as soon as possible.
Financially stressed Americans should not have to spend hours on the phone waiting for someone to process their application or answer their questions. People who have lost their jobs during this pandemic should be able to successfully apply online without technical difficulties or websites crashing.
Among a number of requests contained in the letter—and a deadline for clear answers from the Labor Secretary no later than April 3—the lawmakers demand that Scalia "make sure that every unemployment office in the nation has the necessary staffing and technology to address the unprecedented number of requests for benefits that are coming in each and every day."
"Workers," tweeted Sen. Wyden, "who have lost their jobs can't afford to wait for help."