For 20 years I’ve devoted my career to understanding how DC leaders can do more to help our most vulnerable neighbors. I want to share with you my view of how the city should respond now, to this highly unusual crisis that has left thousands more DC residents economically vulnerable overnight.
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council have taken swift, decisive, and necessary action to pass emergency legislation to help residents and small businesses in DC. However, as we look ahead to the far-reaching consequences of this emergency, I believe we will need to do more.
I want DC to do even more to put money in the pockets of DC residents who are losing income, to help them and help DC’s economy:
- We need targeted relief for those most in need, such as workers whose hours and jobs are being cut in the service and hospitality industries. We should increase the weekly unemployment benefits, something I have fought for in the past.
- We should increase benefits for residents receiving public benefits to reflect lost income and likely changes in family food needs with kids – including college students – home from school for extended periods. Not only will this help families, but it also will keep money in our economy.
- We should automatically enroll residents in benefit programs like SNAP when they file for unemployment insurance.
- Our immigrant neighbors who lack documentation for public benefits also desperately need support to avert falling into deep poverty and experiencing homelessness
- Landlords should not not be able evict residents, once the crisis ends, if a renter can show they were unable to pay rent during the crisis.
- We should take steps to protect the health and well-being of our homeless neighbors, and find temporary housing for our most vulnerable homeless residents.
District small businesses also need financial support right now, and may not be able to wait on the Mayor starting up a small business grant program. We can provide immediate relief to our hardest hit smaller businesses — those losing perishable inventory, child care providers, tour operators, direct service nonprofits, and others — by covering their forthcoming rent or waiving their business taxes for the forthcoming quarter. Large corporations should be encouraged to take advantage of flexibility with DC Family and Medical Leave Act (DCFMLA) and unemployment insurance to allow their most vulnerable workers — older workers, workers with diabetes and other underlying health conditions, pregnant workers — to stay home while collecting benefits from the District and continued health care coverage from their company; this can save the company money at a time and ensure their workforce is able to follow public health recommendations.
To accomplish these relief measures and more we should be ready to start using our $1.4 billion reserves now. We should waive rules for DC funds that require rapid repayment and should ask to do the same for the reserves that DC maintains because of federal law.
Many of these recommendations were published as a letter from advocates to Mayor Bowser and the Council late last week, as one of my last acts as Executive Director of DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
Here are additional steps we could be taking as a city:
- Businesses should move to job sharing — reducing everyone’s hours — rather than layoffs. DC has a law allowing people in job sharing to collect unemployment but never finished the regulations. Under emergency operating procedures, they should immediately implement worksharing. Job sharing will help people stay connected to their jobs and employer-provided health insurance, stabilize their income, and better respond to the work-family challenge many parents are finding themselves in with children at home full time. The District should broadly communicate this to employers once it is approved.
- DC should borrow from the federal government (which is offering very low interest loans) to keep our Unemployment Insurance trust fund solvent without raising taxes on employers.
- DC should raise the weekly benefit level temporarily to $600. The current maximum benefit of $444/week is lower than in 27 states.
- DC should temporarily increase TANF and SNAP benefits — which will be spent immediately in our economy. The maximum TANF benefit for a family of three with no other income is only around $650 a month.
- DC should require all businesses to provide more paid sick days — 14 days or more.
Evictions and shutoffs
- Not only do we need a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, but no one should be evicted or cut off when the moratorium ends, if they can show they had reduced income during the pandemic. We don’t want a rush of evictions when the moratorium ends.
- We can create a relief fund for small landlords as part of small business help.
- Focus on costs such as perishable food, child care providers, and addressing ongoing expenses such as rent even if businesses are in reduced operations
- We should not allow businesses ever to be evicted for getting behind on rent during the pandemic — not just a moratorium on evictions until the pandemic crisis ends.
- Many businesses will need to address cash flow well before the Mayor’s grant program is up and running. We can help them by covering April rent or looking at a business’s District taxes to waive or lessen those burdens.
- We should prioritize assistance for small businesses that maintain their staff and implement work sharing to address reduced staffing needs.
- MPD should immediately implement policies to stop arrests for low-level offenses, to allow officers to focus more on protecting the health and safety of residents affected by the crisis.
- DC should use its $1.4 billion in reserves assertively. Our leaders have been very reluctant in the past to tap into reserves even when the need was clear.
- DC should waive rules that require rapid repayment of local reserves
- We also should ask Congress to eliminate the rapid repayment requirements in DC-funded reserves set by Congress during the control board era. It’s our money and we should set the rules.
I have spent my career understanding the power of DC Councilmembers and the ways they can and should be using that power in situations just like this. It’s why I’m ready to step up and join the Council.
Stay healthy to you and your family,
Photo by Flickr user Joe Flood