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Response, Relief, and Recovery for the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Robert Knight,
Director of Government Relations and Workforce Policy

Congress and the Administration have answered the coronavirus pandemic and resultant economic implosion in three ways: Response, Relief, and Recovery. They’ve responded by providing funding to bolster the ability of the health care system to meet an unprecedented challenge, as well as support for research into a vaccine. Relief comes in the form of a one-time financial payment to most families, an expanded and enhanced Unemployment Insurance (UI) system for the millions who have lost their jobs, and loans/grants to small businesses to help them avoid layoffs. Recovery is demonstrated through efforts to grow the economy and strategies to prepare the workforce for the world of work post-COVID-19.

It is no surprise that most of the attention, good and bad, has focused on relief. After all, with more than 40 million workers applying for UI over the past several weeks and thousands of small businesses (and a few large ones) facing closure, immediate needs crowd out a discussion of what to do the day after. Still, investments in worker skills during an economic downturn have always made sense even though Congress often fails to act in a timely fashion as was the case during the Great Recession.

The principal relief bill thus far, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and a bill to add additional money to that Act, had a price tag estimated at $2.5 trillion. A mind-boggling sum, yet most economists agree that it was not enough as either relief or stimulus. Furthermore, of the huge investment, only $2 billion was earmarked for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Recovery remained on the back burner.

In early May, the workforce and education communities were heartened to see that the House Education and Labor Committee, under Chairman Bobby Scott (Democrat-Virginia), passed the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act, proposing $15 billion for a variety of workforce programs, including more than $10 billion for WIOA programs. However, in the face of many competing priorities, the House later stripped $13 billion of the Labor Committee’s proposal and passed the HEROES Act with $2 billion for WIOA core programs.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act with an estimated cost of $3 trillion went to the Senate where, as expected, it was declared dead on arrival by the Republican leadership. Maybe so, but Democrats have set out their proposal for next steps. Republicans will soon do the same. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) has indicated that we can expect further action in late July. A compromise appears likely.

The next few weeks are an important opportunity for the workforce development community to speak out through its national and state associations and professional organizations, as well as through you as a constituent with two senators and a representative in the House.

Recently, the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB) hosted The Forum, where workforce industry experts, employers, workforce services providers such as Equus Workforce Solutions, and community leaders came together to discuss the Future of Work. We all need to speak out for our customers, both employers and job seekers.

No doubt that unemployment will come down from its current heights more slowly than we initially thought and, therefore, many families will continue to need economic assistance for some time to come. The same will be true for specific industries. We also know that the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and lower-wage workers. A central goal today and the day after will be to assist in the economic recovery and improvement that is an essential element of social justice for these groups and for all Americans.

For us, the message is that the time for skill development is now! The next coronavirus response legislation demands a robust investment in skills through apprenticeships, internships, on-the-job training, work experience, youth summer jobs, and other work-based learning programs as well as virtual and classroom career and technical education. In addition, to be effective, money and accountability need to be at the local level. Speak out now! The day after the pandemic is closer than we think.