Federal and state officials said at a virtual town hall this week that economic recovery was at the forefront of their minds, but they often cautioned that they were dependent on federal dollars that may not be coming.
The live-streamed meeting, moderated by former Burbank Mayor Marsha Ramos and which featured Congressman Adam Schiff, state Sen. Anthony Portantino and California Labor Secretary Julie Su, allowed residents to float questions to the representatives on topics ranging from testing to Azerbaijani aggression in Artsakh.
A subject that dominated much of the conversation on Monday, however, was a recession caused by the deadly coronavirus. The California unemployment rate fell to an estimated 10.8% in September, the second consecutive month since March that the rate was lower than the 12.3% height of the Great Recession, according to the state’s Employment Development Department.
There were more than 2 million workers in California who remained unemployed last month.
“From my point of view, people are desperately hurting right now,” Schiff said. “The pandemic, sadly, tragically, is not going away — at the moment it is getting much worse. And our infection rates and our hospitalizations are going up, not down. Millions of businesses are hanging by a thread.”
Schiff said that it seemed like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were “very close” to reaching an agreement on a new stimulus deal, but expressed concerns that fierce disagreements with Republicans could prevent a potential package from passing.
The congressman added that he lobbied to include provisions for live venues and mixed-income earners in a potential stimulus package pushed by Democrats, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.
However, while Schiff said he would prefer the United States to guarantee part of workers’ wages, as several countries in Europe are doing during the pandemic, he agreed that federal funding for Payroll Protection Program loans need to be replenished. Republicans have called for a similar measure to support businesses.
A key provision of a previous stimulus package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was to issue enhanced unemployment benefits. Su explained that the California EDD has paid $181 billion in benefits in the past seven months. While most came from federal funds, $55 billion of that was in regular state benefits — more than double what was paid in the three worst years of the Great Recession combined, she added.
Su also admitted that the EDD process has experienced delays, miscommunications and other issues, but added that the state has cut down on its application backlog after Gov. Gavin Newsom created a task force for reforms.
However, she also acknowledged that getting people back to work was contingent on the status of the pandemic.
“If we cannot contain the virus, we cannot stabilize our economy,” Su said.
The representatives agreed there was a significant need for more and better testing, with Schiff saying results should be available in 24 hours after testing. Portantino also highlighted a special need for schools to have access to tests and laboratories, adding he has raised the issue with Newsom’s office.
Portantino also acknowledged that reopening schools safely would be one of the biggest duties of next year, and pointed out the state legislature had pledged to keep funding for schools at pre-COVID levels.
He also stressed the importance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, adding that it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“My appeal is, wear a mask to be a good neighbor,” Portantino said.
Schiff agreed, noting that he introduced a bill in June that would have launched a public service announcement campaign explaining the efficacy of face coverings and give a mask to any American who wanted one. The bill has not advanced since being introduced in a House committee.
“All those things should be just fundamental and basic and noncontroversial,” he added, “But during this administration, everything around a mask has been controversial.”
When closing the town hall, Schiff also implored viewers — regardless of party — to vote on Nov. 3, which he called “the most important election of our lifetime.”
“Your health is on the ballot, the economy is on the ballot, democracy is on the ballot,” he said.