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Editorial: Congress and president must act this week to bridge unemployment benefits, protect businesses and boost testing

Many New Mexicans are worried this weekend, really worried.

They’re worried about how they’re going to pay next month’s rent. They’re worried about how they’re going to make vehicle and mortgage payments and continue to put food on the table for their children – or grandchildren or parents or other extended family and friends who have hunkered down with them during the pandemic shutdown and economic squeeze.

Tens of thousands of out-of-work New Mexicans will see greatly reduced unemployment benefits after Congress and President Donald Trump let them down last week and allowed a $600 federal unemployment boost to expire. More than 140,000 New Mexicans rendered unemployed by the pandemic have counted on that federal boost that expired Friday, along with a federal moratorium on evictions from rental units that expired July 24.

And they have counterparts in every state.

While unemployment benefits aren’t intended to be permanent, they have been a lifeline for New Mexicans who have lost jobs due to public health orders aimed at curbing the COVID-19 spread. Some, like restaurant employees, have gone through this twice. After being furloughed for months, many returned to work in early June after indoor dining was green-lighted at 50% capacity. Then, in mid-July, amid rising positive coronavirus tests, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham reinstated the ban on indoor dining and many found themselves again relying on unemployment benefits. From those up on the fourth floor in the Governor’s Office down to the cadre of dishwashers who just want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, the pandemic has been a rollercoaster nobody wanted to ride.

All New Mexicans have lived in great uncertainty over the past four and a half months, and perhaps the only thing that’s crystal clear is fighting COVID-19 is going to be a long slog. While vaccine developments are promising, it’s unclear when one will be available or how effective it will be, and for what demographics. The July/August AARP Bulletin explores how standard antibody-producing vaccines are less effective in folks over 65. And several vaccine experts in The Atlantic on July 25 say the virus is already too widespread and at best a vaccine “could make COVID-19 easier to live with” by mitigating the severity of cases.

So we have to be judicious in our relief packages, and not throw bottomless amounts of cash at assistance, thinking this will be over quickly. People will need help, and they likely will need it for months to come.

At the same time, quick action is imperative.

Yet Congress and the president remain deadlocked over a new coronavirus relief package, and it is up to the federal government to provide the immediate relief needed in these health and economic crises.

To wit: The economic crisis in New Mexico is so bad the state is having to request $285 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to make sure its state unemployment trust fund doesn’t dry up over the next three months. New Mexico’s fund balance dropped from $465 million in mid-March to $112.7 million in late July as more than 10% of the state’s labor force filed initial unemployment claims in the first month of the pandemic. And the $265 million bailout would just be a loan – the federal assistance would have to be paid back and will likely hit already-struggling businesses with stiffer payments into the fund next year. Including the $600 weekly federal benefits, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has distributed a whopping $1.5 billion of unemployment benefits since the pandemic began.

It is essential Congress and the president come together this week and reach a coronavirus aid package that can be implemented quickly, yet structured for the long term.

The $600-a-week federal boost hastily approved in March as part of a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill created a disincentive to return to work because many Americans made more money while unemployed than when working. The reluctance of some to go back to work further strains state unemployment trust funds. There’s a smarter compromise to be had that keeps workers above water without sinking the American work ethic – perhaps a version of the Republicans’ initial March proposal to enhance state unemployment benefits with federal funds until the total reaches 70% or 80% of what one earned while employed. Sure, logistically it’s much more difficult than topping off weekly checks with an extra $600, but it’s more sustainable and makes more sense. A stopgap could be to continue the $600-a-week amount temporarily and then transition into the other proposal when feasible. We need as many people as possible to return to work when it is deemed safe to do so, so employer payroll taxes replenish states’ unemployment trust funds.

Enough of the brinkmanship, Mr. President and Congress. That’s not helpful for Americans worried about their health, their next meal and keeping a roof over their heads.

Also included in the aid package should be language giving businesses limited liability protection. Of course those that ignore CDC and state COVID-safe health practices and put their employees and customers at risk should be held accountable, but why, for example, should an eatery or grocery that has followed all the rules be held responsible when an employee or customer goes to a party at the local lake or park and then tests positive? Without such protections – for victims of truly bad actors as well as businesses that follow the rules – there will be a tsunami of lawsuits related to the coronavirus destined to sink court dockets and responsible businesses alike.

And more federal money for testing is essential. The lag in turnaround times for test results of up to two weeks has made contact tracing all but impossible and test results worthless, as they are only a snapshot in time.

Congress and the president need to put an unemployment benefits bridge, as well as protections for responsible businesses and ramped-up testing, on the front burner. They need to focus and keep the extras at a minimum. Helping our nation through this pandemic is something every politician should want to put on their campaign literature. Let’s have a little bipartisanship, even in a presidential election year, and get this done.

New Mexicans who have been living on the edge – and are about to fall off the cliff without extended benefits – are counting on it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.