Rep. Joe Courtney

Courtney Talks Business and Worker Relief, Protecting Medical Staff, and Potential Next Steps for Congress amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Congress passed three major relief efforts in March in response to the coronavirus, the largest totaled approximately $2 trillion. In a Thursday morning teleconference hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, Rep. Joe Courtney said he thinks the crisis will push Congress to act further and that the country’s shortage of personal protective equipment is the “desperate critical issue of the day.”

“We have got to get a better plan out there to help health care workers and frontline folks who are out there interacting with the public,” said Courtney, whose district covers most of the eastern half of the state.

“I’m talking to the hospitals every single day, nursing homes, people who are out there, and it’s almost scary out there in terms of protecting people. We have got to do better and have, in my opinion, a much more aggressive utilization of the Defense Production Act, which is a tool in the toolbox that will at least stop export of [personal protective] material. Because believe it or not, some of that’s happening.”

The Defense Production Act of 1950 gives the President the power to compel and to compensate companies to provide essential products needed for the nation’s safety.

Courtney said that in a recent conversation with an administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency tasked with oversight over protective medical gear, he was told that “where the country stands, as far as the national stockpile, is pretty grim.”

Courtney added that hospitals are likely to lose revenue from cancelled elective surgeries, while also facing new costs from their response to the pandemic. All of that will likely require a “revisit” from Congress, he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed that Congress should pass a fourth bill to stimulate the economy through extensive investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

Courtney said that Congress’s efforts so far have focused mainly on relief and keeping businesses afloat in a difficult time. But Courtney also acknowledged that stimulus was important to the recovery.

“We need to also stimulate recovery… and when we’re talking about stimulating recovery, infrastructure is an obvious place for us to be looking at. The president sounded like he was interested in looking at it.”

Courtney said that a conference call was scheduled later in the day with Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

As a “caveat,” Courtney also noted that in a recent Washington Post article, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was quoted as hesitant about further action.

“At some point the external need for Congress to act again, I think, is going to force the issue,” Courtney said, “but it still remains to be seen.”

In response to a question from Bruce MacDonald of New London, Courtney said that Congress will ultimately seek to create an “after-the-fact report” on the country’s preparedness and response to the pandemic, similar to the 9/11 Commission Report. 

Courtney counsels persistence in applying for relief

Courtney said that the most recent $2 trillion relief package signed by President Trump on March 27 includes at least $1.38 billion in direct aid to Connecticut, detailed in a relief resources guide compiled by his staff.

For one of the highest profile items in the package — direct rebates of $1,200 to most individuals — Courtney said that the first 60 million checks would be issued in the week of April 13.

The direct checks will be considered rebates and will not be counted as income for any other income-dependent federal or state programs, Courtney said.

Many of the questions that Courtney received over the course of the Thursday morning call focused on which individuals would be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits and what businesses could take advantage of other relief efforts.

“Every time I ask [Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt] Westby a question, he says anyone can file a claim. It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Courtney said, adding later that people can apply for benefits even if they aren’t sure if they’re eligible.

Congress has so far expanded federally-funded benefits for unemployment through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to cover gig workers, the self-employed, independent contractors, and people who would have started a new job that couldn’t due to the pandemic.

The amount of unemployment benefits directed to individuals has also increased, Courtney said, including an additional $600 per person per week for four months.

“The whole thrust of everything is income replacement — to try and get as much immediate income replacement as possible,” Courtney said. “That’s why they’ve widened the aperture for who can apply for unemployment.”

Courtney added that many claims with the Department of Labor in Hartford are being delayed because of the sudden influx of claims and because of the department’s outdated computer systems.

“They have an ancient IT system, it is actually a COBOL-based computer system which is pretty old,” Courtney said. “They were in the process of updating this system when this thing hit… You have to be persistent in going through the portal on the internet. That’s the only way claims are being processed. It’s a very old system. That’s the reality that they’re struggling with.”

The relief program would provide retroactive benefits — people who are not immediately authorized for unemployment benefits may still collect compensation dating to when they became eligible.

The federal relief programs have also included extensive loans for small businesses, including a $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program intended to provide 100 percent federally-guaranteed loans to employers that will be forgiven if they maintain their payroll.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the chamber, at the end of the call encouraged listeners to reach out to the chamber for information if they have additional questions.

“All of us really should think about the front line workers,” he added. “The hospital staff, the grocery store staff. These are amazing people and somehow when this all over we have to find a way to honor them, and also Congressmen, your people and yourself. Your grasp of details is very, very helpful and the same goes for your staff.”

Courtney concluded the call by saying that a doctor had recently told him, “You can never over-communicate, but you have to make sure you’re over-communicating with good information. And I can see the chamber is committed to that.”