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Alexander: “We Are Going to Have to Pay What It Costs to Contain This Disease”

As Senate sends to president second bill to fight COVID-19, senator warns paid leave plan hurts employers and shortchanges employees

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2020 – United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement after he voted for and the Senate passed, by a vote of 90-8, a second piece of legislation to address the COVID-19 outbreak:

“We are here not as Democrats and Republicans, but we are here to work together to do whatever we can to address COVID-19. Since the federal government is closing down the country – on behalf of all the people -- to contain a disease, we’re going to have to pay for it. Today, we’ve passed a bill, which I supported, that encourages more testing and paid leave for businesses with less than 500 employees and paid family sick leave. But, I don’t believe what we do today or what we propose to do later this week will be enough, because look at the number of people being laid off in this country, and our state unemployment agencies are not going to be able to deal with that,” Alexander said today in a speech on the Senate floor. “Take Tennessee, for example, where unemployment has been very low and where people have found it easy to find a job. There were only 2,000 applications for unemployment insurance last week, but already this week by 2 PM Wednesday, there were four times that many applications – 9,177 – and if you’re successful in unemployment compensation in our state, you only get $265 per week for 26 weeks.

“So we’re going to have to do even more than we’ve done, and even more than the president has done.”

Alexander continued, “I have significant issues with the paid sick and family leave proposals in the legislation we passed today – even though I believe those provisions are well-intended by the Administration and by the House of Representatives – because this paid leave plan hurts employers and shortchanges employees. …If Washington, D.C., is going to require small businesses, many of which are struggling or going out of business, to pay a new mandate, Washington should pay for it. This is no time to impose an expensive new mandate or unexpected new costs when they don’t have the money coming in to pay for the normal costs. So I’m afraid, as a result of this, many employers worried about this provision may have an incentive to lay off more of their employees. …I would rather Washington work with the states and their existing programs to make sure states have sufficient funding on top of their own funds to deal with the large amount of auto workers, restaurant workers and workers at small businesses.”

Alexander concluded his remarks by talking about the third bill Congress is working on to address COVID-19: “We’re going to stay here until we take step three – and step three, according to the president’s proposal, would include direct financial payments to Americans. That legislation will need to fix problems to make the paid leave mandate work, improve and further expand COVID-19 testing, increase the availability of medical masks and other protective equipment, and increase the number of health care workers. We also need to allow students to defer payment on their student loans and to keep their Pell grants and give the Education Secretary flexibility to waive federal academic testing and accountability rules. Congress should pass this legislation immediately.

“I am confident Republicans and Democrats will work together to meet the needs of our nation in this trying time.”