The week of March 27, the U.S. passed a historic $2 trillion dollar stimulus bill to provide relief for workers and businesses while the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden played a role advocating and developing the financial aspects of the bill. As a senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Finance, he says from the beginning, Democrats wanted to put the workers first.
“Our message from day one was workers first,” he says in an interview with Eugene Weekly.
Wyden says workers feel like they’ve been “hit with a wrecking ball” because so many people have lost their jobs so quickly. So he says the first thing he wanted to do was supercharge unemployment.
The stimulus bill first faced an impasse when Republicans had written in more funding to larger corporations. The Democrats pushed back for the unemployed, negotiating that in addition to full unemployment benefits, workers would get $600 more per week.
Wyden says he will forever remember the moment when he debated whether the benefits should cover three or four months with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
He says Mnuchin argued there wasn’t enough money, but Wyden pulled out his phone and used the calculator app to prove that the cost was within the framework of the bill. And the four months were approved.
“I also made it clear to the Trump people that this was the time to stop leaving behind all the people who basically get forgotten in a modern economy,” Wyden says.
When unemployment benefits were created in the 1930s, Wyden says, it didn’t include independent contractors and gig workers. The workforce has evolved since then, and he says the unemployment system needs to be reformed.
Wyden adds that he also focused on telemedicine, which would allow patients to virtually visit their doctor on Skype or FaceTime, and limits the risk of someone who is asymptomatic going in and getting tested before knowing if they have the virus.
“I really think that’s something that is really going to make a difference,” Wyden says. “Not just now, when we grapple with this [pandemic], but after this, in the future.”
Now, Wyden says he is working on ensuring that people get what was intended with the bill. This past weekend, he spoke with Oregon hospitals, giving them the ability to get more reimbursement when they step up to fight coronavirus and don’t do elective procedures.
This bill creates a bridge so the hospitals can get those payments when they are short on cash.
“I would describe what I was trying to do as putting a pause on the economic damage,” Wyden says, adding later: “The idea is to put a pause on all that pain to be able to recover as we knock back the virus.”