White House To Boost Emergency Coronavirus Pandemic Food Aid

President Joe Biden is signing executive orders Friday to boost food benefits and make it easier for workers to refuse unsafe jobs and still get unemployment insurance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The orders show the Biden administration’s determination to side more closely with workers than did the Trump administration, which resisted demands from Democrats and worker advocates to carry out the policies Biden is now enacting.

“We’re at a precarious moment in our economy,” said Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, citing a Labor Department report that more than 900,000 people filed unemployment claims in the past week as COVID-19 continues to submerge the economy. “So many people are hanging by a thread.”

On a conference call with reporters Thursday night, Deese repeatedly emphasized the need for Congress to act on Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, which includes $1,400 checks for most Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars to help speed up coronavirus vaccinations.

“These actions are not a substitute for comprehensive legislative relief,” Deese said.

Biden is taking two steps to help families afford food. The administration plans to increase by 15% the amount given to families in an emergency benefits program designed to make up for missing school lunches. It also plans to allow states to give additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to the lowest-income families, a step the Biden administration said would help 12 million people.

Biden is issuing several worker protection orders, including instructing the Department of Labor to clarify that workers can still be eligible for jobless benefits even if they refuse employment at a site that would pose too high a risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The Trump administration had told states to yank benefits from job refusers despite protections in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for people whose underlying health conditions add risks to job opportunities. Trump Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia claimed in June that “we have never suggested that workers should sacrifice health for returning to work,” but several workers told HuffPost last summer they’d been denied benefits even after showing doctors’ notes to their state workforce agency.

Biden’s new memorandum should eventually result in the Labor Department sending states new guidance essentially reversing the Trump administration’s encouragement to deny benefits. (Some states already made a point of allowing job refusers to receive benefits if they were at higher risk of developing more severe illnesses.)

Several of the orders also directly address federal employees and are largely focused on undoing Trump’s efforts to reshape the federal workforce, which made it easier to fire career public servants and weakened their union protections.

Biden is undoing four of Trump’s executive orders on the federal workforce. Three of those orders had shortened the firing process for poor-performing federal employees, cut the amount of paid time federal workers received for union work and called on agencies to negotiate more restrictive union contracts. Biden is revoking all three.

Lastly, Biden is reversing the Trump administration’s efforts to strip thousands of federal employees of their rights as civil servants. Trump signed an executive order last year creating a federal workforce classification called Schedule F that would have stripped thousands of nonpartisan lawyers, regulators and analysts of their union representation rights and made them vulnerable to being fired for political reasons.

Biden’s order eliminates the Schedule F classification altogether, a major sigh of relief for career federal workers who would have been treated more like political appointments with less job certainty.

A separate order aimed at federal employees makes yet another nod toward a $15 minimum wage, instructing agencies to promote higher wages among their workforces.

Biden is not adjusting the actual pay scale from which federal employees are salaried. Rather, he is asking agencies to come up with “recommendations to promote a $15 per hour minimum wage,”

Last summer, Biden said he would adopt a proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to issue an executive order within the first 100 days in office that would ensure federal contractors paid their workers at least $15 per hour.

This is not that order, but Biden’s team says it’s a step in that direction. Biden also called on Congress to pass a federal $15 minimum wage last week in its $1.9 trillion proposal to address the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.


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