Our Opportunity to Re-evaluate: Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Policy Response and Priorities Moving Forward

Diana Polson |

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Many of us worry about the health and well-being of our family and our friends, as well as our own, in the face of such a novel virus. Policy aimed at keeping us safe and preventing the spread of the disease has closed schools and workplaces across the Commonwealth and has kept us sheltering in place. We question how our society, our economy, our schools—can open back up safely. We worry that this recession could turn into a prolonged depression, hitting vulnerable communities and workers especially hard.

This crisis has led to Great Depression-level unemployment in an incredibly short time period. If you add the more than 1.87 million Pennsylvanians who have filed initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) since March 14 to the 6% of Pennsylvanians already unemployed at that time, an estimated 34.6% of the labor force was jobless by May 20. (While higher than the official unemployment rate, because not all people are jobless because of COVID are counted as unemployed, this rate is a better gauge of actual joblessness.) Along with rising unemployment has come a loss of health insurance—one estimate suggests 1.64 million Pennsylvania residents will lose their employer-sponsored health insurance during this crisis.

Pennsylvania has taken steps towards providing economic relief, worker protections, and health care support in the face of this crisis, but more must be done on the federal and state levels. The state has acted on its own in some cases and in others has relied on federal changes or support, including CARES Act funding that is just now starting to be distributed. Below are some of the actions by the state and federal government that has eased some suffering. (Look here for more details.)

Unemployment Insurance (UI): The work search requirement and the week-long delay before a person can receive their unemployment insurance payment have been waived. Additional support is available ($600 per week) via unemployment insurance. UI is now available to gig workers and the self-employed. An additional 13 weeks is available for those who have exhausted their UI benefits.

SNAP and food security: SNAP certification periods have been extended to limit terminations. Pennsylvania has joined a federal pilot program allowing SNAP recipients to buy groceries online from a limited number of retailers. Emergency SNAP assistance is available for families whose kid(s) qualified for free or reduced lunch, or who attended a school whose student population qualified—this provides a benefit of about $365 for each child (total) for the end of the school year (since schools were closed).

Housing, LIHEAP, and Utilities: There is a moratorium on evictions or foreclosures, currently through July 10. There is also a moratorium on utility shutoffs for as long as Pennsylvania is under an emergency order. LIHEAP, which usually runs only through the winter months, has established a new program called Recovery Crisis Program which will provide support for energy bills through August.

Relief for Child Care Centers: Governor Wolf is using CARES Act funding to support child care providers across the state.

Health Care: Federal CARES money will be used to cover testing and treatment services for those who are uninsured.

Worker Protection: Dr. Levine of PA’s Department of Health has signed orders requiring employers to comply with cleaning and social distancing guidelines from the CDC and ensuring employers provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE).

The above actions are important steps towards ensuring Pennsylvanians are protected and secure during our state-imposed shutdown. But how will we continue to provide support to all our residents struggling in our post-COVID world? As it currently stands, once the eviction and utility moratoriums are over, rent and utilities will still be due. The exorbitant lines at food pantries show that many are still facing food insecurity, despite improvements we’ve made to SNAP. Some residents of the state are losing employer-based health insurance or remain uninsured in the midst of a global health pandemic that endangers us all. Essential workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, are putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk, often for low wages. With a Republican-controlled General Assembly, not many of the legislative proposals aimed at bolstering workers’ rights or strengthening the social safety net have moved. Much of the actions in these areas have come from the governor’s own executive orders, orders from his administration, or from federal support.

The federal government, through the CARES Act, is providing $3.9 billion to Pennsylvania in COVID relief. Under current regulations and law—which may be subject to change in the next few months—the money cannot be spent to fill budget holes in the state budget, but instead is meant to be used for costs incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pennsylvania Senate Democrats have made a proposal with a set of spending priorities for this federal CARES funding.

They propose:

  • $1.1 billion for assistance for working people. This comes in the form of emergency housing assistance (rent assistance and housing assistance for senior citizens and disabled; PHARE funding; utility bill payment assistance; student debt assistance; veteran support, and emergency food assistance).
  • $650 million for health care workers, first responders, and frontline workers. This includes: ensuring these workers have the personal protective equipment they need; an increase in testing capacity; grants for hospitals, nursing homes, personal care homes, community health centers, and EMS/first responders for COVID-19 response; hazard pay fund for frontline workers; and a robust contract tracing program.
  • $900 million for education and child care grants. These grants are for child care centers and pre-K program expenses, including payroll and tuition loss. For schools the grants are for school districts and counties/municipalities dealing with the COVID-19 impact.
  • $450 million for business and agriculture. This support comes in the form of grants for small businesses, nonprofits, tourism and arts organizations, restaurants and hospitality, and agricultural and dairy businesses. Agricultural funding would be focused on food supply chain initiatives.
      • $300 million for historically disadvantaged communities. This includes grants to minority and women-owned businesses; a comprehensive education, testing, contact tracing and data collection for minority populations who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; funding for historically Black colleges and universities; and grants to farmers markets, grocery stores, and supermarkets in historically disadvantaged communities to ensure fresh food is available.

There are other policies Pennsylvania could adopt to strengthen the social safety net and provide economic support for workers living on the edge such as freezing rent and mortgage payments (to be proposed by Reps Fiedler, Innamorato, Friel Otten, and Lee); providing free child care for essential workers (Rep. Davis’s proposal HB2411); restoring General Assistance which was eliminated last year and provides cash support for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable; enacting paid family and medical leave insurance and paid sick days (proposed by Sen. Farnese, SB1109 and Rep. Hohenstein, HB2391); passing a state Earned Income Tax Credit to piggyback the federal EITC; raising TANF benefits, which haven’t been increased since the 1990s; creating a public option in the health insurance exchanges by requiring Medicaid Managed Care Organizations to offer policies on the exchanges; supplementing federal health care subsidies on the exchanges with a state add-on; and raising the minimum wage.

COVID-19 has created innumerable new challenges, but we have no other option but to rise to meet them. This crisis provides us an opportunity to reflect on how we as a state and country operate. It allows us to see the incredibly valuable work that all workers provide day in and day out. It forces us to question our practice of linking employment and health insurance. These times show clearly how dangerously close to the edge too many of us are living—a crisis away from poverty. It has laid bare the holes and inadequacies of our social safety net despite its absolute necessity. It challenges the common notion that individuals are to blame for their own poverty—rather, it exposes our systemic failings. It opens up room for ideas such as a universal basic income and universal health care.

This time of crisis allows us to question who and what we value. Let’s make sure, with every policy choice we make, that it is all of us.