Johnson, Kind Debate Need for Federal Funds for Schools, Unemployment

Johnson, Kind



By Julian Emerson

July 17, 2020

The two debated issues Friday at a virtual meeting hosted by Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce.

Two members of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation took sharply different stances Friday toward extending the $600 supplemental unemployment insurance payments set to expire at the end of this month as economic struggles continue across the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

U.S. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said continuing those payments intended to help people pay bills as many face reduced income would actually hinder an economic bounceback. Businesses are struggling to attract workers, he said, because too many of them make more money through unemployment than at their jobs. 

“You’re not going to get workers if you’re paying them more not to work,” Johnson said during a virtual meeting Friday hosted by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

The $600 benefit is paid weekly to qualified recipients and is part of the federal CARES Act approved by Congress in March. Ending those payments later this month would leave many without much-needed money to pay bills during the COVID-19-related economic slowdown, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said during the meeting.

Eliminating the payments at the end of July “would deepen the economic crisis,” he said, “and would prolong the economic recovery.” 

Instead, Kind said he supports tying those payouts to regional unemployment numbers, a move he said would provide businesses with more certainty as they seek to rebound from tough conditions because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

While the benefit must be extended, Kind said he backs phasing it out before year’s end. Some lawmakers have discussed using at least some of that funding for bonus payments for workers re-entering the workforce, he said. 

The $600 payment could expire before federal lawmakers reach a deal on the next coronavirus relief package, creating uncertainty for people who rely on that money to pay bills as the economy continues to recover. Unemployment numbers have improved during the last month, but nationally the unemployment rate is still 11 percent, and many people are struggling with lost income related to the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. 

Negotiations between the House and the Senate aren’t expected to start until next week, and Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on the issue. Even if lawmakers approve a continuation of the payments later this month or early August, it could cause a weeks-long delay of payments.

Johnson also balked at providing additional federal funding to schools as part of the next round of CARES Act funding. Lawmakers are receiving significant requests for money to help school districts across the U.S. pay for such items as additional personal protective equipment and technology devices necessary to resume schools amid the pandemic, Johnson said.

“Count me as highly skeptical of all of those (funding) requests,” he said. 

As school resumes this fall, school districts in Wisconsin and across the nation will experience higher costs related to COVID-19, said Heather Dubois Bourenane, president of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. Leaving them without the federal funding they need, part of the federal HEROES Act being considered by Congress, will endanger the health of students, teachers, and others, she said. 

“Without additional funding, you’re putting teachers and families at risk even more than they already are,” she said.  

Johnson strongly endorses a return to in-person instruction, in part because a continuation of at-home learning would require more parents to be home and would slow the economic recovery. The health risks COVID-19 poses to students is relatively small, he said, noting “for kids, it’s less dangerous than the seasonal flu.”

However, medical experts have said COVID-19 represents a greater risk to the public than the flu, in part because there is not yet a vaccine to protect people against it and the health ramifications are more severe.

On Friday Madison school district officials announced they will start the upcoming school year with virtual learning only, one day after the district’s teachers union requested that happen because of concerns related to COVID-19. Madison schools join Milwaukee Public Schools offering online-only education to begin the new school year.  

Kind acknowledged that many educators are concerned about returning to the classroom, as students can be carriers of the virus. Many teachers and staff are older and have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, he said. Some parents also are considering keeping their children home from school because of concerns about the virus.     

Businesses are also concerned about the virus in their workplaces, and about facing lawsuits if people are infected with COVID-19 in those locations. Kind said he understands the need for liability protections against lawsuits for businesses and other workplaces, but those protections should only happen if employers are willing to provide safe work environments for workers that protect against their contracting the virus.   

Johnson said he also believes businesses must comply with safety standards to receive protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits, although he said most companies will do so without mandates. 

Certain industries, most notably the meatpacking sector, have been investigated for failing to protect workers during the pandemic, leading to illnesses and deaths. Workers at those facilities have said their employers in many cases failed to provide safe work environments. 

“We can’t just pass legislation (providing legal protections) regardless of how these businesses are behaving,” Kind said. 


CATEGORIES: Coronavirus


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