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D.C. Council OKs Emergency Expansion of Unemployment Benefits Amid State of Emergency

District residents who’ve been relegated to their homes during the public health state of emergency have pondered how they would continue to meet their financial obligations while away from their job for the next several weeks.

On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. Council answered that question in the form of emergency legislation expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits and business grants. This bill comes as District health officials fight to quell the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected 23 people as of Tuesday.

In addition to providing unemployment benefits for the self-employed and those working at temporarily shuttered public venues, the legislation creates a special form of emergency leave for employees testing positive for the coronavirus.

Small businesses, nonprofits, and self-employed people demonstrating a loss of revenue during a state of emergency qualify for grants that can be used toward repaying Small Business Administration loans, compensating employees, or paying business-related bills.

Though grateful, some council members said they’re waiting to see whether Congress would provide additional support, which would likely be used to help freelancers and others in the gig economy.

“We aren’t getting the support we need from the federal government, but we will keep working to do whatever we can to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus and support those who are feeling the pain right now of those steps,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said he’s working with President Donald Trump (R) and Congress to develop and push a $1 trillion relief package that would dole out payments to small businesses, open lines of credit for airlines, hotels, and other industries, and create a worker stimulus package.

This comes as state governments around the country have instituted similar protections for people reeling from income and revenue losses during the public health state of emergency.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, colleges and universities in the area have closed, with some — like Howard University — even going as far as to cancel the rest of the semester and commencement activities.

On Monday night, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) ordered all restaurants and bars to close. This decision — one of numerous since Bowser called a state of emergency on March 11 — followed the cancellation of public sporting, entertainment, and cultural events of more than 250 people, D.C. public and public charter school closures, a significant slowdown in local government activities.

Neighboring Maryland and Virginia, along with several other states have followed suit, with economic activity coming to a standstill. The coronavirus — and the response — has caused a ripple effect throughout the District economic infrastructure.

The emergency legislation recently passed by the D.C. Council also allows Mayor Bowser to shift employee job responsibilities across agencies. It shields healthcare workers from liability — other than in cases of gross negligence — as they carry out actions to combat the coronavirus. It prohibits price gouging and hoarding of items needed for first responders.

District families facing homelessness can also get placed into interim housing while housing providers can transfer tenants to new homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said the comprehensive bill showed the great potential for cooperation among various local entities.

“While it is true that we find ourselves in unchartered territory, I have found hope and optimism in seeing all branches of government, businesses, residents, and staff come together to find solutions during this time of crisis,” said McDuffie, also chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Business and Economic Development.

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