HEROES Act would help families weather the ongoing COVID-19 storm


Twice in the past month the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) has taken to the pages of The Hill to oppose legislation that would greatly improve the lives of American women and men dealing with the fallout from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Both times, IWF urged Congress to reject providing Americans, who face levels of unemployment unseen since the Great Depression, with an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits out of concern that some workers would bring in more than they did when they were employed.

IWF also opposed efforts to establish a permanent federal paid-leave program, despite evidence these programs provide security for American families and help prevent the spread of infectious disease. Instead, IWF espoused an alternative plan that quietly drains the Social Security Trust Fund.

However, IWF’s criticism of that extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits only underscores how chronically underpaid Americans are, due to conservatives blocking efforts to increase minimum wages for years.

Nationally, the minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, even as the average national cost of renting has gone up 49 percent in the past decade. The tipped minimum wage has been set for almost 30 years at $2.13 an hour — the rate it was when I stopped waiting tables to go to law school.

In my home state of Wisconsin, an American working 40 hours a week at minimum wage has gross pay of $290 a week, which amounts to $15,080 per year in take-home pay to cover everything they need — housing, lights, heat, food, insurance, transportation and medical expenses. It’s an almost impossible task, if you really think about it.

Before the pandemic, that minimum-wage-working Wisconsinite would receive only $150 a week in unemployment benefits if she or he lost a job, and only for a limited period.

Thanks to temporary benefits provided by the CARES Act, Wisconsinites who are out of work now are receiving $750 a week — an amount that may be a closer approximation of what the real minimum wage should be in America, despite the howls of protest by IWF and others against a $10 or even $15 hourly rate.

Still, as the term “minimum wage” suggests, many Americans are barely scraping by. Unfortunately, low wages are not the only problems many face. The inability of tens of millions of Americans to access paid family and medical leave amid this rapidly unfolding global health pandemic also puts countless lives at risk.

The HEROES Act at least acknowledges this reality by providing hazard pay during the pandemic for essential workers, through a wage of $13 per hour. But no one should have to choose between a paycheck and their life and the health of their families, which is why expanding paid leave is a public health imperative.

Opposing a permanent solution to these problems is fundamentally immoral. The absence of a federal paid-leave program that covers all private-sector workers also hurts our economy. It can devastate the well-being of millions of American families on tight budgets. Just “three days of unpaid sick time translate into a household’s monthly utilities budget, preventing the worker from paying for electricity and heat,” according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

While the Affordable Care Act has helped to improve things, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 66.5 percent of all bankruptcies in the U.S. are still the result of high medical costs or time out of work.

Now, more than ever, the HEROES Act would go a long way toward helping to save lives and helping families weather this unprecedented storm. It’s well past time that reforms like it be adopted.

Lisa Graves is executive director of True North Research, which designs and conducts research studies about federal and state public policy. She is co-founder of watchdog group Documented Investigations, former chief counsel for nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Heroes Act Living wage Minimum wage

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