U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin walks to a meeting during negotiations on a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief package

Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin walks to a meeting during negotiations on a COVID-19 relief package on Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

Top aides to Republican President Donald Trump and senior Senate Republicans and Democrats said they had agreed early Wednesday morning on an unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus bill after five days of marathon talks.

“Today the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said after the chamber convened at noon Eastern time.

“This is not even a stimulus package,” he said. “It is emergency relief.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said his party was willing to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

“Help is on the way. Big help. Quick help,” he said on the Senate floor.

Trump is ready to sign the measure into law, the White House said, but it was unclear how quickly Congress could get the package to his desk. McConnell did not say what time the Senate would hold its vote, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is not expected to act before Thursday.

A potential roadblock emerged in the early afternoon, as several Republican senators said the bill needed to be changed so that it would not pay laid-off workers more money than they earned on the job, calling the language a “drafting error.”

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said at a news conference.

The massive bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of U.S. families.

It will also include $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

It would be the largest rescue package ever approved by Congress and the third such effort to be passed this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the $3.8 billion allocated to his state would not cover the tax revenue it stands to lose from reduced economic activity. His state accounts for roughly half of all U.S. cases.

“That is a drop in the bucket,” he said at a news conference.

The package aims to flood the U.S. economy with cash in a bid to stem the impact of a pandemic that has killed more than 810 people in the United States and infected more than 59,200.

The governors of at least 18 states, including New York, have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the pathogen’s spread, but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

Wall Street rose in choppy trading on Wednesday, building on the previous session’s gains, on hopes of quick congressional action.

The stimulus bill is expected to pass the Republican-led Senate easily, more so because Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the only senator to vote against an earlier round of emergency virus funding, may be unable to vote after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

It also must pass the Democratic-led House of Representatives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who proposed a more far-reaching rescue package, did not say whether she would support the Senate version.

“We’ll see the bill and see how the Senate votes. So there’s no decision about timing until we see the bill,” she told reporters.

House members left Washington 10 days ago, but the lower chamber could quickly pass the bill without requiring them to return if all members agree to do so.

The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, told lawmakers that they would be notified 24 hours before any action.

If just one of the chamber’s 430 current members objects, that could require them to return to Washington to vote in person at a time when several members are self-quarantining. Any changes made by the House would also require Senate approval — leading to further delays.

The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, said he supported the bill and called for its quick passage.  — Reuters

Uber, Lyft drivers face gig economy downside

As independent contractors, U.S. ride-hail drivers for Uber and Lyft benefited from soaring trip demand and flexible work hours.

But as the coronavirus brings large parts of the country to a halt, drivers and companies are facing the downside of an ambiguous contractor model. Many Uber and Lyft drivers depend on the companies, but under U.S. labor law don't have the protections granted to regular employees.

Under pressure to ease the plight of its roughly 1.3 million U.S. drivers and food delivery workers, Uber has seized on the crisis to advance its campaign for a larger overhaul of U.S. employment law to permit it to offer more benefits while maintaining workers' contractor status, changes it has requested from state and federal lawmakers for several years.

Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi on Monday urged U.S. legislators to use the current crisis as an opportunity to implement changes to existing employment law by creating what the company calls a "third way" in between employment and contractor status.

A spokesman for U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer on Wednesday said a massive federal coronavirus aid bill will include reforms to make unemployment insurance available to self-employed and gig workers, adding that more details would be presented throughout the day.

Uber's proposal drew sharp criticism from labor unions. "A 'third way' is just a euphemism for creating a new underclass of workers with fewer rights and protections," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

In a statement, Uber said economic forecasts meant more people will need flexible, independent work in the future, which was why it wanted to raise the standard for that work.

Uber's original benefits plan did not include unemployment insurance, the protection drivers seek most under current circumstances. A driver advocacy group in New York on Tuesday called on Uber and Lyft to contribute to emergency unemployment pay.

Uber did not comment on the lack of unemployment insurance, saying only that its proposed model included "extended benefits for independent contractors."

Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.  — Reuters

Stevens Alumni Weekend in Claremont canceled 

The annual Stevens High School Alumni Weekend parade and celebrations in Claremont have never been canceled in the more than 70 year history of the event until today, according to Carolyn LeBlanc, a member of the Stevens Alumni Association Board.

 “It’s heartbreaking for a lot of people,” LeBlanc said.

The parade draws thousands of people from all over the county back to Claremont for the marching bands, parade floats made by different classes, and class reunion celebrations. The parade has always happened, rain or shine, she said.

“But this is not a matter of rain or shine, this a matter of life or death,” she said.

The Alumni Association members did not want to risk holding the parade and other celebrations if there was a chance the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full-swing by June, she said. Spectators will gather on Claremont’s Pleasant Street 15 to 20 people deep, she said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Someone could contract from the crowd, or someone could bring to Claremont from another state.”

The Alumni Association has bands and other vendors booked by mid-April for the June event, she said. It’s also the time of year when people who want to attend make travel and coding plans, meaning now this the last chance for the association to cancel before deposits are paid.

The Alumni Association is letting the individual graduating class organizations decide if they want to have their own celebrations this year, or move one to planning for next year. LeBlanc said the cancelation will be difficult for the future of the organization, she said. The volunteer group is supported by dues and donations, which are likely to go down this year.

“The Alumni Association is going to get hit hard this year,” she said. — Damien Fisher, Union Leader correspondent

Wednesday, April 01, 2020