By Rep. Rick Larsen (WA-02)
From my vantage here in Everett, the public health emergency of the COVID-19 crisis is all around. Snohomish County has the second highest number of cases in the state. Just north in Skagit County, more than 22 percent of people tested for COVID-19 have tested positive, more than twice the statewide average. In San Juan County, where the economy depends on tourism, the County Council recently passed a resolution asking people not to visit the Islands to help slow the virus’ spread. We are chasing down masks, gowns and ventilators still. No doubt, the public health emergency is present and real.
Also real is the economic emergency that workers, families and small businesses face. At some point, Washingtonians will get to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis and begin a long economic recovery. Already, economists are attempting to forecast the national economic picture for the months to come. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects a 12 percent unemployment rate by the end of June, dropping only to nine percent by the end of 2021. The Economic Policy Institute projects an unemployment rate around 15 percent by the end of June for the country and Washington state. January’s unemployment rate of 3.6 percent seems like a dream.
Fortunately, Congress took bipartisan action more than a week ago to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic. Passing the CARES Act was only one more step to help families, workers, small businesses and communities, but it is a start.
Individuals and families will soon receive payments of $1,200 and $2,400, respectively, to help pay for immediate expenses. If you have already shared your bank account information with the IRS, you can expect to receive a rebate via direct deposit the week of April 13. Social Security recipients will receive payments and will not need to fill out additional paperwork to do so. The IRS will soon establish a web-based portal to enable people to update payment information and receive rebates sooner. Please visit IRS.gov for more information.
The ranks of the unemployed have swelled. As of this writing, the state received more than 180,000 new unemployment applications last week. Initial claims are up more than 2600 percent since the week of March 1. Every day, I hear from workers who need help. The CARES Act includes a new benefit called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for the self-employed, independent contractors, people unable to start a new position due to the pandemic, part-time and gig economy workers. The state will administer the program and is targeting mid-April for its start with benefits retroactive to January 27 if the person was unemployed then. Additionally, the CARES Act adds $600 to the weekly unemployment benefit through July 31 of this year to put as much money into the pockets of workers and families as possible.
Small businesses are getting help from the CARES Act, too. Small businesses can apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) directly through the Small Business Administration at covid19relief.sba.gov. These loans may work for some and not others, so Congress established the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses, including self-employed and independent contractors. The PPP can help small businesses with loans with a maximum two-year term with a one percent interest rate. This loan can be forgiven if the employer can show a commitment to keeping her workers on the payroll. Small business owners should contact their own bank for details and must work with an SBA-preferred bank. As of this writing, the SBA has backed more than 17,500 loans totaling nearly $6 billion, and banks in Northwest Washington are participating in the PPP in support of local small businesses.
I am under no illusion that this help will flip the switch on the economy and the hurt the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust on families, workers and small businesses. I expect my team and I will continue to field calls from constituents hearing their stories of hurt. We stand ready to help and know there is more to do.
Further action needed
Based on early estimates of the economic impact of the pandemic, I believe Congress will need to take further action by: extending the Paycheck Protection Program to help more small businesses retain employees and stay in business; providing more dollars to support workers slammed by unemployment that is likely to linger, especially for workers in lower wage jobs; providing further support for health care professionals, hospitals and state and local governments; addressing inequities in internet access because of its importance to K-12 education; and supporting homeowners and renters to ensure they keep a roof over their heads.
It also is not too early for policy makers to begin thinking what a recovery should look like here in Washington state: how we get back on track in our state to maintain our strengths in aerospace, technology and trade while growing the economy for everyone; how we help our public health system and health care networks recover and maintain their leadership; and how we support traumatized individuals and families and help them climb out of this fast and deep slide. If the recovery does not lift everyone, we will have lost an opportunity.
Special thanks to those on the front line
Finally, I want to thank the grocery workers who continue to serve our communities, first responders answering the call, teachers and their students doing amazing things right now and local health care workers and volunteers on the front line of pandemic response and preparedness. I will be submitting statements to the Congressional Record soon expressing the gratitude of the people of the Second District. The public health emergency is real as is the economic emergency. We must continue to tackle these two challenges in parallel and together. So we will.