How Did We Go From Stimulus Checks to “Go to Work With COVID”?

In the early days of the pandemic, Democrats excoriated then-President Donald Trump for not doing enough to allow people to stay home from work. “Flatten the curve” was the phrase of the month, and even centrist Democrats found their inner democratic socialist, at least temporarily. At the time, they argued in favor of regular monthly payments to Americans and other pro-labor, pro-working-class programs. Now, the Biden administration struggled even to agree internally on whether the government should send high-quality N95 masks to everyone. (To their limited credit, they ultimately decided it would be a good idea.)

In May 2020, Sen. Kamala Harris, now vice president, joined Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey in calling for monthly $2,000 payments to Americans making under $120,000 a year. Their plan allocated additional money for parents as well. One year later, Senators Ron Wyden and Michael Bennet introduced ambitious legislation that would have modernized unemployment insurance assistance nationwide. Their proposal would have extended the length that people could have received benefits, expanded the pool of beneficiaries to include gig workers who are often excluded from the programs, and increased weekly payments.

Now, that rhetoric is nowhere to be found, even though most public health indicators are worse now than at any other time during the pandemic. Some lawmakers have reportedly been discussing another round of stimulus spending for small business owners of restaurants and gyms, which are particularly vulnerable to COVID-induced economic slowdown. These talks appear to have stalled, however, and it’s worth underlining that the economic aid would go to business owners rather than workers.

From the limited reporting around these talks, the Biden administration appears outright hostile to the idea of renewing direct payments to Americans, rather than routing any forthcoming aid through employers. “[T]he economy is booming, there are millions of open jobs, and we do not believe people should be sitting at home if they are vaccinated and boosted, as most adults are,” a senior Biden official told CNN earlier this month. “So we are not going to write checks to incentivize people to sit at home.” (A recent Change.org petition calling for recurring direct payments has gathered more than 3 million signatures.)

It’s true that in March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion spending bill that included one-time checks of $1,400 to most Americans. At the time, 10 Senate Democrats called on the Biden administration to make direct payments permanent for the duration of the pandemic. The plan also included increasing allotments for food stamps and rental assistance for low-income families. Perhaps most critically, the act reconfigured the child tax credit so that parents received monthly checks of $250 or $300 per child, rather than having to wait until getting their tax returns to get access to that money. The child tax credit, arguably one of the most important anti-poverty programs in a generation, expired in December. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin joined all Senate Republicans in opposing the program’s extension.

Federal unemployment assistance ended in September 2021, as conservatives in both parties argued that the increased payments were incentivizing workers not to seek employment. However, studies showed at the time that states that ended the federal assistance had roughly the same job growth as states that stayed in the program, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. “Economists who have conducted their own analyses of the government data say the rates of job growth in states that ended and states that maintained the benefits are, from a statistical perspective, about the same,” the WSJ reported.

Now, as Biden enters his second year in office, Democrats have made it clear that additional financial support from the government will not be forthcoming, despite surging COVID caseloads due to the emergence of the Omicron variant in December. The United States broke its pandemic hospitalization record this week, as more than 142,000 COVID patients are expected to be hospitalized nationwide. Experts are warning that number could more than double, potentially reaching 300,000 hospitalizations or more by the end of January.

The lack of another round of survival checks or unemployment boosts means that people can’t afford to stay home, even though that would help slow the spread and ease the strain on hospitals and urgent care clinics. Though it’s difficult to get a full picture of how many employers are forcing COVID-positive workers back into the workplace, every day brings new mounting evidence that the practice is becoming increasingly normalized and widespread.

The trend is especially concerning in hospitals, at least some of which appear to be recommending doctors and nurses continue to work regardless of their COVID status. A New Jersey nurse was recently told to come in “despite concerns that she had contracted Covid-19,” according to Politico. The same report also found that “[h]ealth care workers around the country have reported that they are being called in to work even if they suspect they are infectious.” New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines issued in December allow health care providers to return to work after five days, rather than 10, even without testing negative. In Rhode Island, a hospital asked five COVID-positive, asymptomatic staff members to come in to work. Days later, the facility reported it had suffered an outbreak, though a spokesperson said the rise in cases was unrelated.

In what is almost certainly a microcosm of the private sector as a whole, Red Lobster workers have been forced to work while sick, either because of financial necessity or pressure from management, according to the newsletter Popular Information. One employee said he faced “threats” from management after asking to stay home when he developed COVID symptoms. Some teachers in New York City have likewise been forced into the classroom, despite testing positive for COVID. For years, restaurant workers have been expected to work while sick or injured, a trend that hasn’t abated during the pandemic.

For all the talk of “The Great Resignation” — that is, working people quitting their jobs for better-paying employment — the reality is that the working class in the U.S. is still struggling to make ends meet. Early COVID federal assistance programs actually cut poverty in the U.S. and allowed many families to build up savings for the first time. That so-called “excess saving” had evaporated for many families by the end of 2021. One particularly bleak recent study found that 14 percent of survey respondents who worked at supermarket giant Kroger faced homelessness in the past year.

Now, the entire political establishment has arrived at the consensus that little, if any additional help will be forthcoming. Renters in New York State face an expiring eviction moratorium. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki spoke out against the Chicago Teachers Union’s calls for a safer workplace. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky downplayed the risk Omicron poses, saying it was “encouraging news” that people who have died from the variant had at least four comorbidities.

The only urgency we’re seeing at the federal level is the urgency of continuing to sacrifice the working class on the altar of economic growth. For too many policy makers, learning to live with the virus means learning to live with preventable death and suffering. Direct, predictable payments could solve that, but at this point, that’s as hard to imagine as the pandemic ever coming to an end under the prevailing political conditions.