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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged worker safety

Worker safety: Who gets protected?

Posted June 17th, 2020 to Blog

The COVID-19 crisis poses a dizzying combination of health and economic risks, and it has forced us to rethink the ways in which our public policies protect us against those risks. The underlying logic of the CARES Act, for example, was based on the assumption that sharing public spaces — especially workplaces — posed a grave threat to the public health. Its benefits — including a limited program of paid leave and a relatively generous expansion of unemployment insurance — were designed to make not working and sheltering in place possible.

That instinct was right but its execution was dismally flawed. State unemployment systems could not begin to manage the avalanche of claims. The virus flourished in settings — most starkly meatpacking plants — that ploughed ahead as “essential” businesses. And states impatient to open up again did everything they could to discourage workers from accessing the new federal benefits — a point Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend all but conceded in testimony before Congress last week.

From the first hint of the virus to the rush to reopen, Iowa has done perilously little to protect its workers, their families, and their communities. Safe workplaces are pretty clearly defined in the guidelines developed by both the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). But there is nothing in state or federal law that compels employers to follow them, and ample evidence that many are not. Even in the midst of local outbreaks, county health directors lacked the authority to shut down production. “They just don’t get it,” as the Tama County emergency management coordinator, complained in the midst of an outbreak at the National Beef plant there, “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” As Governor Reynolds coldly reminded us in late May: “Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect both the lives and the livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”

Those priorities came into sharper focus this week. In a brief and largely aimless session, the Iowa Legislature offered scarcely a passing reference to the health and economic insecurity facing Iowa’s working families. They did, however, jump to address the insecurity of Iowa employers — offering up blanket immunity from COVID related claims coming from workers or consumers.

The “COVID-19 Response and Back to Business Limited Liability Act” (Senate File 2338) requires that any claims of exposure to the virus meet a standard of “reckless disregard” or “actual malice.” Employers “shall not be held liable for civil damages for any injuries sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 if the act or omission alleged to violate a duty of care was in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or state statute, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure.” Since such regulations or guidelines are virtually non-existent, it is hard to imagine what such threshold might look like.

At a time of such peril and uncertainty, this is a remarkable and damning expression of our state’s priorities. It is a solution in search of a problem; there has been no stampede of frivolous damage claims — in Iowa or elsewhere. And it ignores the more obvious and equitable tack, which is to protect the workers in the first place, and allow them to refuse work (and draw unemployment benefits) if that protection is not sufficient. “Everybody wins when businesses follow clear, science-based guidelines to protect health and safety,” as The New York Times put it in a recent editorial. “Workers and customers are less likely to get exposed to the virus, and businesses are less likely to get exposed to litigation.”

Now, more than ever, our public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward; on whom they protect, and whom they do not. The blanket immunity offered Iowa businesses by SF2338, alongside our abject and continuing failure to offer any meaningful protection for Iowa’s workers, fails that assessment on all counts.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Back to business at Statehouse

Posted May 27th, 2020 to

Finding best uses of Iowa relief funds as legislators prepare to resume the 2020 session June 3

Over 18,000 Iowans have been sickened with the coronavirus. Over 313,000 Iowans — nearly 1 in 5 workers — have applied for unemployment since the middle of March. Many small businesses have closed or are operating at only limited capacity and suffering drastic losses.

While the misery is widespread, low-wage workers and persons of color have disproportionately felt the health and the economic consequences of the crisis. Both groups are more likely to be exposed to the virus — because they are more likely to be “essential workers” — and more likely to experience health and social disadvantages associated with poverty and racism that increase the odds of serious effects when exposed.[1]

Congress on March 27 passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, which created the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) to cover expenses of state and local governments related to the COVID-19 health and economic emergency. Of $139 billion for states, Iowa’s share is $1.25 billion. Because we have no cities with a population over 500,000, no funding went directly to local governments, but the state is free to allocate funds to localities.

Quick and effective use of these funds is important not just to help the thousands of Iowans suffering from the effects of this crisis, but also to boost the state economy. It has been shown that the most effective way of stimulating economic activity is to get more money in the hands of lower and middle income households, who can be counted on to spend in the local economy and support Iowa’s businesses. That in turn will boost state sales tax and income tax revenues, moderating the state’s fiscal problems.

How can the state use CRF funds, and what are the best uses?

CRF money must go for expenditures necessitated by the coronavirus emergency through December 30, 2020.[2] Congress made it explicit that these funds are for unforeseen and necessary additional expenditures, not to replace revenue lost because of the falloff in economic activity.[3] Still, the range of allowable uses is quite broad.[4] Eligible expenditures include not only direct expenses for public health needs but also expenses “incurred to respond to second order effects of the emergency, such as providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19 related business closures.”[5]

As of this writing, Iowa plans to spend $100 million of the $1.25 billion, all to the Small Business Relief Program.[6] The Governor also will use $20 million to fund a new rental and mortgage assistance program. Lawmakers should use the remaining $1.13 billion to prioritize protecting state and local finances — key to long-term recovery — and meet the needs of low-wage workers and people of color who have borne the brunt of the virus.

Here are ways legislators should allocate CRF funds or adjust state priorities when they reconvene June 3:

  • Pay salaries and benefits of state government employees who have been diverted from their usual activities to respond to the current emergency. By using CRF for some state payroll costs, Iowa would face a smaller budget shortfall from the expected precipitous drop in state revenues.
  • Transfer funds to cities and counties to cover additional costs associated with the emergency, including payroll. Cities and counties face sizable costs for emergency management, purchase of personal protective equipment, sanitizing of facilities, technology needed for staff to work remotely, overtime for public safety workers, and elections costs with greater use of voting by mail.[7]
  • Transfer funds to school districts, which face added costs to divert education staff to online learning programs, facility cleaning, and ensuring that all students have access to educational programs while schools remain closed. Funds provided directly to schools by the CARES Act represent just 1 percent of school district budgets and are unlikely to cover all of these costs.
  • Bolster the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) with state funds and create a parallel program to prevent water shutoffs.
  • Strengthen the state’s Child Care Assistance program by increasing the maximum family income eligibility level and raising provider reimbursement rates. These boosts will support essential workers unable to afford the full cost of child care, help stabilize the child care industry by bringing new families into the system and improve its underlying financial structure.
  • Expand cash assistance under the Family Investment Program to help families meet basic needs and avert serious hardship.
  • Expand food assistance by increasing income eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, easing access with broad-based categorical eligibility and initiating a Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) program to reach currently excluded Iowans. SNAP puts food on the table and is an important way to stimulate local economies.
  • Hire more staff at Iowa Workforce Development to facilitate applications for unemployment benefits, and create a network of navigators to help individuals apply for various forms of public assistance needed now by those affected by the crisis, particularly those with language barriers.
  • Provide additional funds to counties for general cash assistance to individuals in emergency situations and those left out of traditional assistance programs.
  • Expand internet access for remote work and education, access to TestIowa and online commerce.
  • Assess the need for financial support to hospitals beyond the $691 million in “provider relief funds” to Iowa health care providers already included in the CARES Act. Hospitals are seeing revenues drop as people avoid seeking care for fear of contracting the virus, a trend that could well continue even after hospitals reopen for elective procedures.

[1] Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “Thinking About Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Impacts Through a Science-Informed, Early Childhood Lens.” https://developingchild.harvard.edu/thinking-about-racial-disparities-in-covid-19-impacts-through-a-science-informed-early-childhood-lens/

[2] Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Update, March 31, 2020. “H.R. 748 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act Appropriations.”

[3] The CARES Act states: “Coronavirus Relief Fund payments may not be used to directly account for revenue shortfalls related to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

[4] U.S. Department of the Treasury: “Coronavirus Relief Fund: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated as of May 4, 2020. A summary of allowable expenses described in this document can be found in the IFP report: “Iowa will need more fiscal relief than Congress has given.” https://bit.ly/2WKMp4o

[5] Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Update, May 15, 2020, “COVID-19 – Iowa Coronavirus Relief Fund.”

[6] Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Update, May 15, 2020, “COVID-19 – Iowa Coronavirus Relief Fund” and Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Update, May 12, 2020, “COVID-19 — Iowa Small Business Relief Program Update.”

[7] An Iowa State Association of Counties found $5.8 million in additional spending required in 11 counties, the majority for emergency management, public safety, public health, courthouse expenses and IT. https://www.iowacounties.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/ISAC-COVID-Financial-Impacts-on-Iowa-Counties-Report.pdf The League of Cities is in the process of surveying members, https://bit.ly/2yvMQ9m.