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Texas AFL-CIO Suggests Alternatives for Use Of Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds

Ed Sills
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The Texas AFL-CIO today pointed the way to worker-centered priorities for use of more than $16 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, arguing that a large percentage of the money should go toward elevating working people who played a major role in battling COVID-19 and preserving prosperity during the pandemic, along with families that have suffered from lack of work.

The recommendations were developed by the United Labor Legislative Committee (ULLCO), the state labor federation’s lobbying arm that advocates for working families at the Texas Capitol.

“Working families in Texas have made extraordinary sacrifices during a deadly pandemic that shook our daily lives,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. “We deserve to share directly in ARPA because of the risks we have taken and the work we have done. So do families who suffered because they could not work, seeing their economic lives turn upside-down through no fault of their own.”

Levy said SB 8, the vehicle for distributing ARPA funds, includes some of labor’s priorities but should lean more in the direction of direct aid to working people.

“SB 8, as introduced, provides the lion’s share of assistance to businesses without making a distinction between the small businesses that suffered most and large corporations that saw huge profits during the pandemic,” Levy said. “The ARPA funds going to Texas provide an opportunity to make up for missed priorities. We believe the best use of ARPA funds would be direct help to working families – help that will flow back into the economy several times over – rather than subsidies for companies that have been counting huge profits. We commend the hard work of our ULLCO members and Texas AFL-CIO Legislative Director René Lara in conceptualizing an inclusive alternative that does right by Texas workers.”

The ULLCO recommendations are below.

Texas AFL-CIO Recommendations
for ARPA Fund Expenditures

As the Texas Legislature considers how to allocate funds provided through the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) of 2021, Texas labor unions believe workers must take priority.

The federal aid will deliver more than $16 billion to our state. It is meant to provide economic relief from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this life-changing event, Texas essential workers remained steadfast in keeping our great state running.

We urge the Legislature to focus this aid first and foremost on providing emergency premium pay for essential workers, not only out of gratitude, but to reward them for the dangers they experienced while working and to encourage them to continue offering their expertise and service should another crisis come along.

Support our State Employees
State employees faced an increased risk to their health and worked tirelessly to provide services to our most vulnerable citizens. House Bill101 provides back pay of $2/hour, dating to the federal disaster declaration on March 13, 2020. State employees who reported to an office or worked directly with the public are eligible to receive the back pay under the federal guidelines. Employees who worked strictly from home are not eligible to receive back pay for the period they worked from home but could be eligible for any portion of time that they were required to work in public.

Premium Pay for ‘Essential’ Workers
Premium pay should be provided to Texas workers who have maintained continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure. This includes: staff at nursing homes, hospitals and home care settings; workers at farms, food production facilities, grocery stores and restaurants; firefighters and EMS workers; plumbers and electricians; janitors and sanitation workers; truck drivers, transportation and warehouse workers, including trucking and railroad employees; employees at wireless and cable providers, including linemen, public health, and safety staff; child-care workers, educators and other school staff; correctional officers; providers of home and community-based health care or assistance with activities of daily living; and social service and human services staff. In addition, “essential work” is defined as “work involving regular in-person interactions or regular physical handling of items that were also handled by others.”

● Create a Retroactive Hazard Pay Fund administered to provide retroactive premium pay to workers in essential critical infrastructure;
● Funding should be made available to workers, not to employers;
● All workers should be eligible to receive assistance through this fund, even if they previously received assistance; and
● Funding should be prioritized for low-income eligible workers who do essential work.

Addressing Housing Instability
Texas has been at the epicenter of the housing instability crisis over the last year. The Texas Supreme Court established a temporary eviction moratorium and Texas later created the Texas Rent Relief program to provide direct assistance to renters facing financial ramifications from COVID-19. Texas also set up the Eviction Diversion Program, which has helped some renters by encouraging renters and landlords to come to an agreement that doesn’t end in eviction.

Texas unions, led by IATSE Local 896 and 51 and IUPAT DC 88, have been deeply involved in the fight to keep working people housed. In Harris County, the union-led Keep Harris Housed coalition has organized over 20 events to connect vulnerable tenants with legal aid and help applying for rental assistance. As of the end of September, over 7,000 tenants have received help at these events. Additionally, union members and community allies have knocked over 40,000 doors to provide tenants with information about legal protections and assistance since last September.

The American Rescue Plan Act will give the State of Texas an opportunity to expand on the effective collaboration already happening to keep Texans in their homes during this ongoing crisis. We recommend the following actions by the Texas legislature:
● Increase funding for direct tenant assistance through the Texas Rent Relief program, and change qualification standards to enable tenants to self-declare eligibility for assistance and allow funds to be released directly to tenants if landlords refuse to participate in program;
● Increase funding for mortgage relief and integrate direct assistance into Texas Rent Relief program to increase ease of access for low-income mortgage holders;
● Increase funding for community Emergency Rental Assistance navigators to get rental and mortgage assistance to tenants quickly;
● Increase funding for eviction intervention in justice of the peace and county courts at law by legal aid organizations or community non-profits;
● Establish and fund a right to counsel in all civil housing cases where plaintiff requests an eviction judgment but does not include any claims of violence or property damage or foreclosure cases where the mortgage holder can provide evidence of income lost due to the pandemic;
● Establish civil penalties for landlords who file evictions against tenants who receive rental assistance, and provide funding for district attorneys to enforce;
● Utilize 100% FEMA reimbursement to fund temporary housing for un-housed Texans and create grants to local municipal housing departments to administer intervention;
● Mandate that employers give workers paid time off to apply for housing assistance if they have received a notice to vacate or eviction filing; and
● Pass and enforce legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against voucher holders, i.e., source of income protection. Discrimination against voucher holders is a major barrier to the effectiveness of this program and source of income protections help address that discrimination.

Direct Financial Assistance
Millions of Texans are still recovering from the impact of COVID-19 on their work, their family and their community. Aid to Texans who were adversely impacted by COVID-19 should be provided in the form of direct cash assistance; emergency assistance for burials, home repairs, and weatherization; assistance with bill payments such as utilities; and legal aid representation. We want to make sure Texans are able to thrive economically during this pandemic, which means investing in internet access and job training opportunities to ensure Texans are able to advance in opportunity career fields. There should be a focus on providing direct assistance to “people of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers” who have been affected the most severely.”

Health Care, Focusing on Children
ARPA funds should be used to support health care programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP for the benefit of adults and children across the state. To thrive at school, children must be mentally and physically healthy. Our state should expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to ensure that as many Texas children as possible have access to vaccines, nutrition guidance, and a school nurse on every campus. Enrollee subsidies for private health insurance are also authorized. During this time, an amount to provide sufficient relief to Texas workers without health coverage ought to be set aside.

Provide parents with the support they need to return to work
During the pandemic, parents have had to juggle caring for small children while still trying to work from home. Child care is critical for our economy. While COVID aid has steered funds towards child-care programs, additional grants should be added for this purpose. Many child-care providers face the possibility of permanent closure as decreased enrollment combines with the higher costs of maintaining a safe workplace. To get Texas back to normal, parents need child-care providers. As Texas workers rejoin the workforce, they will need child-care providers to remain in business.

Paid Sick Leave
The various federal aid funds for COVID relief provided paid sick leave tax credits that employers may use voluntarily. Unfortunately for working people and for the general health of the public, the paid leave provisions have expired. To the extent that the state can offer employers similar aid to fund sick days for their employees, it should do so.

Make the Unemployment Insurance System Simple and Accessible for Texans
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, it’s impact on job losses was unprecedented and quickly overwhelmed the state’s ability to serve applicants on a timely basis. The pandemic also exposed structural weaknesses in the system. Millions of workers who lost jobs through layoffs or furloughs had extraordinary difficulty applying for and accessing benefits. Some work has begun on modernizing unemployment insurance software and other technological capabilities. But the most important resource remains personnel who must be hired and retained so that they may understand and navigate the unemployment insurance system for the benefit of working Texans.

The most important aspect of the modernization of the unemployment insurance system is to remove the unnecessary and outdated barriers as to who can qualify for benefits. Artificial restrictions that exclude part-time and low-wage workers from the system should be eliminated.

Support Small Businesses, Not Tax Breaks for Large Corporations
Small businesses are a driving economic force in our state. While many large businesses did very well economically during the pandemic, many small businesses struggled. ARPA funds should be available to small businesses to mitigate their hardship and keep our state running. Labor supports rebuilding our small businesses.

Improve Construction Standards on Projects to Expand Broadband and improve Water and Sewer Facilities
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, deploying funds and resources to expand high-speed broadband access has been a top national priority. Allocating ARPA funds for this purpose is urgently needed to allow Texas to follow through on its commitment to expand broadband access for all. The passage of House Bill 5 during the 87th Regular Legislative Session was a major leap forward in laying out a path for all Texans to have access to high-speed broadband Internet.

The expansion of broadband internet access also presents a critical opportunity for Texas to create more good jobs in both rural and urban areas to boost local economies. In addition to providing access to unserved and underserved communities, compliance and public accountability measures should be in place to ensure that ARPA funds are being effectively utilized to expand broadband internet access in a manner that supports rural and urban local economies, abides by good job standards, and deploys a well-trained and safe workforce.

Recent efforts by Plumbers Local 68 to address water quality issues in Nome, Texas have also shone a spotlight on the critical need for investment in our water and sewer infrastructure, particularly in areas on the Gulf Coast damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

The American Rescue Plan provides funding to “(assist) in the critical need for investments and improvements to existing infrastructure in water, sewer, and broadband.” According to initial guidance, the U.S. Treasury encourages “recipients to ensure that water, sewer, and broadband projects use strong labor standards, including project labor agreements and community benefits agreements that offer wages at or above the prevailing rate and include local hire provisions, not only to promote effective and efficient delivery of high-quality infrastructure projects but also to support the economic recovery through strong employment opportunities for workers.”

We encourage the Legislature to:
● Amend HB5 to include mandates that broadband infrastructure projects utilize the Department of Labor assessed prevailing wage rates, incorporate local hire and apprenticeship utilization standards, and include project labor agreements;
● Pass legislation funding an expansion of the “Safer Water for Nome” project to provide grants to other small communities in need who have not received direct allocations through the American Rescue Plan;
● Mandate that all ARPA funded infrastructure projects include provisions for OSHA 10 trainings for all workers, and OSHA 30 trainings for all supervisors to increase safety on these projects; and
● Mandate that all ARPA funded infrastructure projects incorporate requirements for water breaks for all workers.