The coronavirus pandemic requires state and local policymakers to act, in addition to demanding a strong federal response
Federal lawmakers seem poised to enact legislation that would help combat some of the public health and economic dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this initial legislation is not sufficient to fully address the problems created by the crisis, and even with additional federal action, there are still steps that state and local policymakers must take—both to slow the spread of the virus and to mitigate the economic toll that the crisis will take on state and local economies. Here are some of the critical steps that state and local officials should consider, including many good ideas that are circulating and some of the positive steps already being taken:
Protect public health
- The foremost action for state policymakers and community leaders is to do everything they can to slow the spread of the virus. Though it will be disruptive in the short run, leaders need to strongly encourage social distancing. In many communities, this may require closing schools, libraries, and other community centers; cancelling events; requiring telework where possible; ordering retail shops, restaurants, and bars to close or shift to delivery service only; and setting strict limits on public gatherings.
- Expand access to testing and treatment by bolstering state and local health care systems with emergency funding and, to the extent possible, removing any financial barriers for people seeking care. Good examples can be seen in Washington, where Governor Inslee used his emergency powers to require state health care insurers to waive all copays and coinsurance for all coronavirus testing. Similar actions have been taken in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. But states should commit to not only covering the cost of coronavirus testing, but treatment as well. Federal lawmakers are considering a 6.2% increase in the share of Medicaid costs covered by the federal government to help relieve the strain on state budgets caused by the virus. Such an increase should hopefully be enough to cover the vast majority of COVID-19-related care.
- Expand health care coverage through Medicaid and the exchanges, and protect coverage for those with employer-based plans. As the Century Foundation discusses, states should request emergency waivers to quickly expand eligibility for Medicaid, especially in those states that did not adopt the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expansion. States that run their own health insurance exchanges can also declare the COVID-19 outbreak as a special enrollment period that allows people to sign up for coverage outside the standard open enrollment period. Governors should also use emergency authority to require employers to maintain insurance coverage for employees whose work hours fall below the ACA’s 30-hour threshold for employer provision of insurance.
- Enact emergency paid sick leave programs that cover all workers in businesses of all sizes in those states where such systems do not already exist. The federal COVID-19 response bill that is moving through Congress takes an important step in the right direction, but does not provide the comprehensive access to paid leave that this moment demands (and should really be available in non-pandemic times anyway). Giving workers the ability to take time off when they or a family member are sick protects public health. It eliminates the need to work when they’re ill or must provide care for a sick family member, thereby reducing the risk of disease transmission. Studies have shown that paid leave programs measurably reduce virus transmission. In states that have paid leave programs, lawmakers should mandate that businesses provide at least 14 days of leave, regardless of workers’ accrued leave time.
- Create clear, accessible systems for communicating information about the virus and resources for the public. This can include hotlines and online resource pages. It may also require larger public education efforts—public service announcements, social media campaigns—and resources to expand online access for low-income communities and make content available in multiple languages.
Mitigate economic harm for workers and businesses
- Bolster and reform state unemployment insurance (UI) systems to quickly protect workers who lose their jobs and those whose hours are reduced. As the National Employment Law Project points out, UI systems will need increased funding to support additional demand even without greatly needed reforms. Current UI programs provide support only to workers who have lost a job and are actively seeking a new one. To protect working families’ well-being and help prevent deeper economic decline, states should immediately expand UI protections to workers who have been idled, waive job-seeking requirements, and eliminate all waiting periods for delivery of benefits (as some states, such as California and Ohio, have already done.)
- Expand “work sharing” programs that allow workers who lose hours, but still remain employed, to receive compensation from state UI systems in order to offset their lost wages. A number of states already have such programs, and state agencies should broadly publicize them as they can offer a straightforward alternative for employers who might otherwise be considering layoffs.
- Ensure that health care professionals and first responders are protected from harm, both physically and economically, as a result of their response to the pandemic. States will likely need to allocate additional funding to municipalities so that firefighters and paramedics have all the protective gear they need to respond to emergency calls safely and effectively. They also need to financially support first responders who may be exposed to the virus in the line of duty. For example, in Washington, the state is allowing health care workers and first responders to receive benefits from the state workers’ compensation system if they’re quarantined due to work exposure (even if they, themselves, are not sick). In Maryland, the state is providing child care for personnel responding to the outbreak. Though these measures may not be possible in all states, policymakers should investigate how existing state systems can be used to provide economic support for impacted workers.
- Expand workers’ access to child care and provide additional support to child care providers who are likely seeing increased demand. As the Center for Law and Social Policy explains, current federal law allows states to make adjustments to their state child care programs that would reduce the strain on children, families, and child care providers. These include adjusting state payments to providers based upon enrollment rather than attendance; waiving eligibility requirements for children based upon attendance and temporarily suspending family eligibility redeterminations; and using additional state or federal funding to waive copays, adjust reimbursement rates, and supply centers with any needed products to ensure safety and hygiene.
- Communicate clearly to workers who may have been misclassified as independent contractors that they may apply for unemployment insurance and that the state—not their employer—will make the ultimate decision regarding eligibility. Make sure that economic support programs are available to genuine independent contractors; for example, Massachusetts’ paid family and medical leave program covers independent contractors. States should look for other ways to ensure nontraditional workers can access programs being made available to standard W-2 employees.
- Consider providing special lending programs and allowing deferral of certain tax payments to help small businesses cope with any sharp declines in revenue as consumers are forced to stay home. Declaring a state of emergency may also allow businesses to tap into the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan assistance program. States should also be sure to make the process for receiving state funding for “worksharing” and any other “advanced UI” programs as simple and accessible as possible.
Protect vulnerable households and communities
- States should look for ways to expand direct income support programs for people and families in need. They should increase benefit amounts for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) while also relaxing eligibility requirements, especially counterproductive work requirements (if such requirements are not already suspended in any federal response legislation). Local governments and school districts should try to ensure families with children who depend on free or reduced school lunches can still receive a meal.
- Lawmakers should provide emergency funding to social service providers—such as food banks, homeless shelters, and senior centers—that can support increased services to counter greater economic distress and implement better disease-fighting measures (e.g., hand sanitizer, regular cleaning, face masks). This should also include increased resources for medical teams and health workers serving jails, prisons, and halfway houses.
- Governors and local executives should use their emergency powers to protect vulnerable households that might be put at further risk from an economic downturn. They should adopt moratoriums on evictions, halt all utility shut-offs including internet and cell service, and suspend collection on medical and court debt until the crisis has subsided.
Address additional equity concerns while also mitigating the spread of the virus
- Many of the responses discussed above must also be further targeted to address the needs of workers and communities at the front lines of the crisis. For example, public education and access to care must combat racialized discrimination and stigmatization of specific communities, such as LGBTQ communities and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Xenophobia has led to decreased business among Asian American small businesses and restaurants in major cities. Federal resources for small business are available in the form of low-interest disaster assistance loans and some cities are also making additional short-term emergency loans available as well. Communications and public education about the virus should accurately describe how the virus spreads and protect people of Asian descent from harassment and discrimination.
- People who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers face greater health risks from COVID-19. State policymakers should ensure all people have access to necessary screening and quality health care regardless of incarceration or detention. They should also try to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated through monitored release programs, medical furlough, and early parole. Courts should also consider postponing any nonessential proceedings.
- Ensure that immigrant communities are aware of the public resources available to them, and have access to screening and quality health care without fear of harassment, deportation, or impact on their immigration status. Communities are put at risk if undocumented individuals who fall ill avoid seeking treatment out of fear of immigration consequences. State and local governments should call on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to suspend immigration enforcement near health care facilities to ensure immigrants get the medical care they need if they become sick.
Strengthen democracy while protecting voter health
- With the 2020 elections already underway, it is essential that states take action to provide safe means for all eligible voters to exercise their right to vote. State policymakers should adopt voting options that facilitate social distancing—such as vote by mail programs and no-excuse absentee voting—and measures that reduce crowds at polling locations, such as expanding early voting, adding additional polling sites, and extending voting hours.
- Finally, the 2020 Census has begun, and the spread of COVID-19 raises concerns both about impact on participation in the Census and the health of census workers. This once-a-decade count is used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives, adjust or redraw congressional and state legislative districts based on population changes, and guide decisions to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to communities for disaster recovery, housing, food assistance, Head Start, and more. In a recent statement, the Census Bureau noted that, if needed, it would adjust the July 31, 2020, completion deadline to ensure an accurate count. State and local policymakers and public officials can support public education efforts through advertising and encouraging residents to participate by mail, phone, and online.
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