The Century Foundation’s Danny Weiss and Amanda Novello joined Representative Andy Levin (D-MI) for a virtual conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on Michigan and the country, how Congress has responded to the crisis, and what will be required for a safe return to work. Representative Levin stressed the importance of additional Congressional relief and proper enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Read a full transcript of the conversation with Representative Levin below.
Danny Weiss, The Century Foundation: Hello and welcome to the conversation with the Century Foundation. My name is Danny Weiss, I’m a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and I’m joined by my colleague Amanda Novello, a senior policy associate at The Century Foundation on our economics team.
Today we’re excited to have a conversation with Congressman Andy Levin about a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds. Namely, how to protect workers and ensure their rights when they return to the job during the coronavirus pandemic.
Congressman, thank you for being with us today. So before we get to the topic of worker safety and worker rights during a time of corona, we wanted to check in with you about how things are going in your district. We have the simultaneous influence of the pandemic and the very significant protests and outrage over the police killing of George Floyd and other black men and women and the demand for racial and economic justice. What are things like right now in your district?
Representative Andy Levin: Well, I’ll tell you, things are both simultaneously very, very difficult, Danny, but also very hopeful because people are really making their voices heard. As you mentioned, I represent Macomb and Oakland counties, right in the Detroit suburbs, that are two of the hardest hit counties in terms of COVID in our state and really in the country. And the influence of systemic racism is so obvious. Black residents make up 26% of the cases and 20% of the deaths in Macomb while they only comprise 12% of the population. And they make up 30% or I think 31% of the cases and 36% of the deaths in Oakland County while comprising only 14% of the population. You know, I’ve been having zoom conversations with Black churches in Macomb County in particular to hear what they’re going through, and it’s really difficult, even some of the pastors have been sick.
But as I mentioned, there’s a lot hopeful going on. Peaceful demonstrations have been widespread throughout the district. I participated in a 6,000 person demonstration in Sterling Heights in Clinton Township. Danny, I think that’s probably the biggest racial justice demonstration in the history of Macomb County. And I flew back last weekend to attend a racial justice summit in Warren, and what I want to say about this is: people are crying out for real systemic change.
I couldn’t believe that Mike Pence came to my district recently and stood down the street from where this protest took place, and claimed that the Trump administration is “leading” on police reform with their executive order. I made the joke that no one at these marches or summits is calling out for grants to compel police departments to do better on their own. It’s just sad.
But, you know, the House took a long overdue step towards ending the scourge of police brutality in our country with the Justice in Policing Act. I’m really deliberate, when I made my speech, in saying that this is just a step. We’ve got so much more to do to dismantle racist systems that have governed our country for centuries, and I’m really committed to doing that work.
Amanda Novello, The Century Foundation: Thanks, Danny, and thanks Congressman, we’re really happy to be with you today. This is an intense time in so many ways, as we’ve been talking about, for everyone but especially for workers. 40 million Americans, or one in four, have applied for unemployment insurance since this started in March, and so many more are making this really tough, painful decision of whether to keep their job or keep themselves or their families safe, and it’s really important to mention that these decisions have been a lot harder for our Black and Latinx workers who have been disproportionately affected by COVID, and also lack access to what are now life-saving benefits of paid time off and a remote work option.
So we just want to get a sense of what you’re hearing from workers right now about this tough decision that they’re making and what options they have?
Levin: Well, you’re so right and as you say, the racial justice component comes in: Black and brown workers are much more likely to be frontline or “essential” workers and not able to work from home.
I guess I’d say a couple things about this. First of all, we need to ramp up testing and contact tracing nationwide. It just is so ridiculous that we haven’t done this and that’s why I wrote and introduced the Coronavirus Containment Corps Act with Senator Elizabeth Warren, to stand up a nationwide contact tracing program and stop the virus in its tracks and get our death rate down, way down, and our reproduction rate way down, more like it is in countries like South Korea, New Zealand, Germany, Iceland. Such a wide variety of countries that have contract tracing provisions. I’m really proud to say that key provisions of the CCC Act were adopted in the HEROES Act that we passed in the House, but I’m urging the Senate to take this up ASAP because we’re losing lives every week that they don’t act.
More broadly, you know, employers have to adapt and ensure that their workplaces are safe for workers, period. And to help make that happen the US Department of Labor must issue an enforceable standard that requires employers to implement measures to keep all their workers safe. It would also ensure that employees have a right of action if things aren’t kept safe for them. And I’ve been pushing OSHA on this since the beginning of the crisis. I did it again at a hearing just a couple weeks ago and the HEROES Act, again, requires OSHA to do this. So, we need the Senate to get in the game.
In terms of what I’m hearing from workers, as you know, I represent a working-class auto manufacturing-heavy district, cities like Warren and Fraser and Roseville and Macomb County, and there have been real problems with factories of all kinds because employers have trouble accessing testing and contact tracing for everyone and a lot of the employers don’t have the clear guidance of what they must do to keep their workers safe. That’s why OSHA is there, Amanda!
I just have to say, a lot of people think, “oh, well, you know, we shouldn’t be punitive.” The point is, if I’m an employer, tell me exactly what I need to do and then I can do it, and none of this namby-pamby guidance or suggestions. Put it out there as what the requirements are and then employers know what they have to do and it’s just a shame that hasn’t happened.
Weiss: Amanda, did you want to follow up on that?
Novello: I’ve just been also, likewise, very frustrated looking into the lack of enforceable guidance at OSHA in particular.
What other actions can Congress take? I know the House passed the HEROES Act, but other than the Senate getting involved, what more is Congress looking into doing to ensure that workers are safe during this time and can also keep their jobs?
Levin: Well one thing is in terms of public policy, none of us are doctors, but “first, do no harm.” And this notion that’s very live out there among some of my colleagues that we have to hold employers harmless during the COVID-19 crisis would be the exact wrong kind of policy. Some kind of immunity, you’ve seen this, and that would be a big disaster, so we need to avoid doing that. Again, employers just need to be accountable for taking sensible measures, a “reasonable person” standard, just like in all other areas of law and policy.
Saying to employers that, “you have immunity,” is telling me, “I don’t have to do anything for my employees, if I do nothing, I’m solid,” and that is the exact wrong signal to send when we’ve lost 120,000 people already, and it’s rising every day, and way too many of those people who’ve died have been people working in factories, meat processing plants, nursing homes, hospitals.
Weiss: So at this point, we have the HEROES Act has passed the House, the Senate has not made any announcements about when it wants to go forward, if at all. What’s your sense about where we go from here? Unemployment insurance is going to expire at the end of July in terms of the extra money that Congress put into that, the $600 a week and the extended unemployment benefits. Other protections are starting to fall away, like for example, the pledge to not kick people off of their cable plans expires at the end of June. If people can’t pay their bill, they might start to lose access to the Internet and to television.
Where do you see things going? In just a couple minutes now, where do you see things going between now and say, the end of the summer and into the fall in terms of Congress and these issues?
Levin: Let’s speak about unemployment benefits specifically. As you mentioned, in the HEROES Act, we extended both the extension of unemployment benefits in general and the $600 a week pandemic unemployment insurance payments through January 31st, 2021 with benefits phase-out. The House has taken that action.
In terms of where I see things going—
Weiss: Sorry, just just to clarify, the House has voted for that—
Weiss: But if it doesn’t get enacted, it will expire at the end of July?
Levin: Exactly, exactly.
So to turn to that aspect of things, you know, policy is never divorced from politics. So here Mitch McConnell is over in the Senate with 33 Republicans, I think, who are up for reelection and you’ve got people, economists all across the spectrum, from right to left, saying that unless the Congress does much more, we’re going to have a Great Depression that’s going to be structural and last years. So I don’t think that these—I think they’re going to have to act.
Maybe I’m just being hopeful but, you know, if I’m a Republican senator up for reelection, I don’t think I can go just say, “we got a lot of right-wing judges through,” and that’s all I have to answer for to the people of Colorado or Arizona or Kentucky or whatever state I’m from. So I think that they’re going to need to act, and also because there’s such recognition that we can’t let state and local government budgets, for example, completely tank, have all those people laid off, and no spending happening. I mean, you’ve seen Raj Chetty’s new amazing research that shows that actually the fall-off in spending during the pandemic is almost completely from wealthier people who aren’t using any personal services because we don’t have the public health stuff in place.
So we really know what we need to do. Will the Senate do everything that was in the HEROES Act? Obviously not, but they better get in the game. You know, Jerome Powell has told them they better do it and a lot of other lifelong Republican and conservative people. This is really above all partisanship, I guess, Danny, this is something that the American people just flat-out need.
Weiss: Well I agree people need this and we will end this on your note of optimism that you do see or that you’re hopeful about things to change and maybe the gridlock will ease and we’ll get something done. Congressman, I want to thank you again very much, and Amanda, thank you for being here with us as well talking with The Century Foundation. Wish you the best of luck with your efforts in Congress and also in your district.
Levin: Thanks so much, good to be with both of you.