BOSTON (CN) — The government should guarantee the paychecks of all employees up to $100,000 a year and provide free health care, free child care and hazard pay to essential workers, Senator Bernie Sanders and other leading progressives in Congress agreed in a livestream Thursday designed to put forth a coherent agenda for the next coronavirus relief package.
Sanders was joined by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as well as the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.
The Democrats also endorsed a moratorium on debt collection, including foreclosures and evictions; expanding Medicare to include everyone receiving unemployment insurance; mail-in elections; a crackdown on payday lending; and monthly cash payments to individuals.
And they promised a focus on how minorities are disparately impacted by the virus.
Sanders hosted the discussion and predictably centered on income inequality.
“We are seeing wealthy people headed out to their summer homes, escaping populated areas, while other workers have to put their life on the line,” he said.
Warren touted the benefits for essential workers included in the “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” that she introduced in the Senate, which include union protections and whistleblower rights in addition to free health and child care and hazard pay.
She noted that essential workers are disproportionately low-income, female and members of minorities. She said that she played a role in the government’s new emphasis on tracking coronavirus cases by race and ethnicity.
The “Paycheck Guarantee Act” sponsored by Jayapal would provide grants to businesses to allow them to cover paychecks up to $100,000 a year, continue employees’ health benefits, pay rent and pay furloughed or laid-off workers retroactively to the beginning of the crisis if they are rehired.
“Massive unemployment is a policy choice,” she said. Unemployment insurance is good but it’s not enough and many people don’t qualify, she added, whereas her bill would keep people in their jobs.
“It’s hard to go from the unemployment system to the workplace, particularly if you’re black or brown,” she said.
Pocan promoted holding the November election by mail if the virus is still a threat. The Madison native said his home state of Wisconsin was “the poster child for how not to have an election during a pandemic,” claiming that 52 people were infected with Covid-19 as a result of participating in the recent primary.
“Conservatives, moderates and progressives all prefer not to get sick when they vote,” he said.
Warren argued that massive testing was the key to reopening the economy. We need testing “in the tens of millions,” she said, and “we need the 15-minute tests, not the ones that take days.”
Warren also blasted payday lenders who are taking advantage of people struggling with the crisis, saying they were engaged in “credit gouging” with interest rates of up to 1,000%.
“It’s very expensive to be poor,” Sanders commented.
Jayapal called President Trump “callous and cruel” for expecting meatpackers to return to work, and Sanders called his actions “outrageous and unspeakable.”
Jayapal suggested that “other countries will emerge from this much more quickly” because they have universal health care. She added that the for-profit model of care had harmed hospitals that are now laying off staff because they are no longer making money from elective procedures.
“Rural hospitals get really screwed,” she said.
A major theme of the discussion was that the coronavirus has shown the country why progressive principles make sense.
“Government has been maligned by conservatives and Republicans,” Jayapal said, but “we see now that government is the force … that allows people to get what they need.” She added, “a public health crisis is the perfect moment to recognize that we are all interconnected.”
“Health care for all is not just a moral issue, it’s a public health issue,” Warren said. “Inequality kills.”
“We all do better when we all do better,” Pocan said.