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D.C. Council OKs Unemployment Benefits Bill Amid Pandemic

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

The D.C. Council answered that question last week in the form of emergency legislation expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits and business grants.

The bill comes as city health officials fight to quell the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed two people and infected nearly 100 in the District as of Sunday.

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

Since the bill’s passage, more than 7,600 city workers have applied for unemployment benefits.

Though grateful, some council members said they’re waiting to see whether Congress will 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 Councilman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he’s working with President Donald Trump (R) and Congress on 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.

However, legislation has stalled in Congress in recent days as both sides of the aisle accused each other of using the stimulus bill as political leverage, though the Senate reportedly was nearing a deal at press time.

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

For more than a week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has ordered all restaurants and bars to close. The decision, one of numerous since Bowser declared 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, and 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 had a ripple effect throughout the District economic infrastructure.

The emergency legislation recently passed by the D.C. Council also allows Bowser to shift employee job responsibilities across agencies. It shields health care 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, and housing providers can transfer tenants to new homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Councilman 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, who chairs the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development.

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