IBEW members are regularly in touch with representatives on Capitol Hill. Those relationships helped to shape the COVID-19 response bill to be more favorable to working families.

With the COVID-19 pandemic essentially closing the American economy, the House and the Senate sent an unprecedented $2 trillion bill to the White House, where the president signed it late Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, the Department of Labor announced that nearly 3.3 million people filed new unemployment claims last week, shattering the previous worst week for the newly unemployed of 690,000 set in 1982.

“This is not a moment of celebration but rather one of necessity,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a letter outlining the agreement. “We have reached an agreement to address this public health emergency, support our local communities, and most importantly, put America’s workers first.”

Although the final bill is smaller and focuses the majority of relief money on corporations than House Democrats’ proposal, the ultimate compromise was far more generous to households and the unemployed than Senate Republicans’ original draft.

The vote in the Senate was a unanimous 96-0 (four senators were quarantined or self-isolating and unavailable for the vote) late in the evening on Wednesday. House members overwhelmingly passed the measure on a voice vote Friday afternoon, despite Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie’s last-ditch effort to scuttle the rescue.

The goal of the bill is to keep money moving through the economy while hundreds of millions of Americans stay home. The headline figure is a one-time $1,200 check – plus an additional $500 for each child – to Americans who reported less than $75,000 income on their taxes last year. The payments are reduced as reported income rises, reaching zero at $99,000 and above.  

“We had two principles we emphasized to elected officials: workers first and health care first,” said Political and Legislative Affairs Director Austin Keyser. “We need to keep people safe and the economy from collapsing. It has never been more clear who does that: it’s our health care workers, our linemen, telecom workers, construction and maintenance members working on hospitals and other critical infrastructure. It’s the people making $8 an hour restocking grocery stores, our members working in power plants. Saving them is how we save our economy, and this bill is a lot better than the one we had over the weekend.”

Keyser said International President Lonnie Stephenson and the department staff, including International Representatives Ann Miller and Danielle Eckert and Government Affairs Specialist Sergio Espinosa, split their attention between what needed to be in the bill and what absolutely needed to stay out.

“We had in mind the overall health of the American people and economy, but we also have partners – in railroad, broadcast, construction—that have very specific interests,” Keyser said. “What do we need? What is hurting us now? Where are the layoffs and what policies would respond to that pain? Then we worked with Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer and their staff to insert those provisions. We helped them find way to make happen what we needed and, in many cases, we have been successful.”

Keyser said they have been working within industry coalitions, with other unions, some leading, some in supporting roles.

“Getting access to Speaker Pelosi right now is hard. Getting her on the phone with President Stephenson for 20 minutes is a gigantic feat, and we did that a couple of times,” Keyser said. “Schumer even called him from the floor.”

First, it was fundamental that any corporate loans had to be transparent. The original bill hid recipients from public view until after the November election. It also had to prevent a repeat of  mistakes from the 2008 bailout, forbidding CEO bonuses and stock buybacks that increase the value of executive stock grants. And it had to punish companies that take taxpayer loans and still lay people off.

“There were things left out of the original Republican draft, there were dangerous things put in, and then there was the stupid stuff, like not having oversight of the money,” Keyser said. “We learned some hard lessons a decade ago when all the promises in the world about how TARP would help workers meant very little without enforcement.”

Once oversight was worked out, Stephenson and Keyser’s top priorities were keeping people working, creating more leave options to keep people from being fired and helping people if they were laid off.

On keeping people working, the bill contains at least $250 billion in grants to states, FEMA disaster relief, transportation and health care construction and maintenance, among infrastructure targets.

“It was critical to get federal money for personal protective equipment, for expanding hospital beds, to increase reserves of critical hospital equipment maintained by the federal government,” Keyser said. “We got that investment massively increased.”

The bill authorizes $100 billion for hospitals and the health system, $1 billion for the Indian Health Service, and billions more for critical investments such as personal and protective equipment for health care workers, testing supplies, increased workforce and training, new construction to house patients, an increase of the Strategic National Stockpile, medical research into COVID-19 and Medicare payment increases. State and local governments will now get $150 billion to prop up local health systems through a Coronavirus relief fund.

This is an addition to the $500 billion in corporate loans that will convert into grants if companies keep their workers on payroll.

Second, the bill creates a new Family Medical Leave mandate. If a someone is off work for more than 10 days –including if there is an state of emergency, the schools close and they have to  watch their kids—after 10 days they would receive 2/3 of their wages up to $200 a day with a  $10,000 total cap.

Third, Democrats and the IBEW required the Republicans accept an unprecedented expansion and reform of unemployment insurance.

For the first time, freelance, gig and self-employed workers will be eligible for unemployment through a first-of-its-kind federal unemployment program and fund. While the majority of IBEW members are full-time hourly workers eligible for state-run unemployment insurance, there are others, like the freelance camera operators and video and audio producers in the broadcast branch, who never have been. They are now.   

“This will save homes, savings, careers. This is enormous,” Keyser said.

The bill also adds $600 per week from the federal government to the maximum unemployment benefit already paid by states.

“[L]aid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months,” Schumer wrote.

The bill also accelerates the application process, waives minimum hour requirements and, if a worker runs out of state unemployment benefits (often after 16 weeks), they can apply  to the federal unemployment insurance that freelancers will access immediately and receive up to 13 additional weeks.

Keyser said House and Senate Democrats also fought to include provisions that would prevent profiteering.

“A lot of companies are like Ford, which is partnering with GE and 3M, doing the American thing, amazing things, converting the factory that makes seat fans for F-150s into a ventilator assembly line,” he said. “But there are others that we will have to compel to do the right thing. We had to build a wall against them.”

The bill creates a new Inspector General against price gouging, and panels that will keep watch over loan disbursal.

“Senate Republicans tried to keep the recipients of these massive loans secret for six months, just to get past the election,” Keyser said. “We fought like hell. We wanted to know who was getting the money. We want to know, are you laying people off?”

The bill requires real-time reporting of the loans and prohibits businesses controlled by the President, Vice President, Members of Congress, and heads of Executive Departments and their family members from receiving loans or investments from Treasury programs.

Speaker Pelosi said there will be another bill, this time with a primary focus on helping struggling workers and Stephenson and the legislative affairs staff have a list of priorities and a full schedule of calls.

High on the list, Keyser said, is a COBRA reimbursement for workers that are laid off and have to take over paying for their own health insurance.

“It would be a huge help for workers, but also the insurance programs they pay into – including the IBEW-run Family Medical Care Plan – which could be facing a precipitous fall in premium payments just at the time when claims may soar,” he said.

There are other priorities, Stephenson said, and there will be a need for offense and defense in the days ahead.

“It will be just as important to keep out bad ideas as it is to pass the good ones,” he said. “We will not let them forget that it’s the American worker saving lives, keeping the power on, keeping the shelves stocked, building the ventilators. The men and women pulling the oars need to be made whole.”