Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Family Economic Security > People working during the pandemic need a living wage too

People working during the pandemic need a living wage too

The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill will keep the wolf from the door for millions of people who can’t work and businesses forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic—at least for a while. Congress rightly recognized its first priority is to see that people with no money coming in have enough to live on.

Now we must do the same for those who are still working. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act targets aid to individuals through changes to the unemployment insurance system and through direct payments. There are a lot of fine-print details around the unemployment changes. But the main provisions are:

  • $600 a week in federal unemployment compensation, to be paid on top of state unemployment benefits through July 31.
  • A 13-week extension of state unemployment benefits for those who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of compensation.
  • Expansion of unemployment insurance to temporarily cover many people who do not qualify for benefits under the regular program, such as people who are self-employed or independent contractors.
  • Federal support for a work-sharing option—known as “short-time compensation”—that allows employers to retain workers through a combination of reduced hours and partial unemployment benefits.

The direct payments will be one-time checks or direct deposits of $1,200 for each adult and $500 for each child. More than 80 percent of households are expected to receive the payments—single taxpayers with incomes up to $75,000 and couples with incomes up to $150,000. The plan is to make the direct-deposit payments in the next few weeks.

Already there has been grumbling that some workers—those making minimum wage, for example—will get more in unemployment compensation than they were making when they were working. These complaints miss the purpose of the CARES Act, which is less of a stimulus and more economic anti-freeze. People who are being directed to stay home need to eat, pay the rent or mortgage, make car payments, pay utility bills, buy prescriptions, and maybe see a doctor. Just because some workers couldn’t afford all of those things on a minimum wage job is no reason to deny them money to live on for the next four months.

We should think of this as paying people to stay home during a pandemic, which will help save our own lives.

And now we also need to turn our efforts to the people who are continuing to work in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices, and scores of public jobs. They won’t get federal unemployment compensation because they’re still doing essential work. They will receive the one-time payment, which will be a help. But we also need to make sure that they, too, are paid enough to live on and support their families during this crisis. 

Sometime soon, Vermont’s minimum wage needs to ensure that all workers have a livable income. In the meantime, Vermont needs to set a livable, minimum wage for essential workers, possibly with state assistance, including school, municipal, and county employees, and perhaps others. They, also, deserve help from the rest of us to get through this pandemic.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on March 31, 2020 at 1:47 pm

2 Responses to “People working during the pandemic need a living wage too”

  1. Gillian says:

    Am I right in understanding that this payment is just an advance on 2020 tax refunds?

    If so this isn’t a payment…and could have dire consequences for low income households next year if they don’t understand it.

  2. Sarah Lyons says:

    Thanks for your question. I’m not a CPA, but all of the research I’ve turned up makes it clear that the federal payments–$1,200 per individual or $2,400 per couple, and $500 per child–do not have to be repaid.

    In the CARES Act, the payments are referred to as “advance refunds.” This payment is an advance on a refundable 2020 federal income tax credit. When people file their 2020 tax returns next year, they will calculate the tax credit amount, based on their 2020 income. For most people, the credit will equal the advance refund they have already received, so there will be no effect on 2020 tax refunds or liabilities.

    It also appears people who receive an advance refund this year based on their 2019 (or 2018) income, but who would have a smaller or no calculated credit next year based on this 2020 income, will not have to repay anything either. And if a tax filer would qualify for a larger payment, based on 2020 income, than he would had received in 2019, he can claim an additional payment next year.

    You can find some additional information here. I hope this has been helpful, and thank you again for your comment. -Jack