UPDATE: Spectrum moves to improve working conditions for cable technicians
On Monday, Popular Information reported that Spectrum, the telecommunications giant that provides cable and internet service to 29 million customers, was failing to take basic steps to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. Among other things, the company was sending technicians into New York City apartments without basic equipment to protect themselves.
On Wednesday, Spectrum's Executive Vice President for Field Operations, Tom Adams, sent out a message outlining steps the company was taking to improve working conditions for technicians. The email was obtained by Popular Information.
Significantly, Adams said Spectrum would take a number of steps designed to keep technicians out of customers’ homes. The company will "increase self-installation in all sales channels as quickly as possible," ship equipment to customers by default, and "review all trouble calls" to maximize resolution "outside the home."
Spectrum also says it has "secured access to hand sanitizer as well as gloves." These supplies, however, won't be available for a "few weeks."
Other aspects of Spectrum's response, according to some employees, were "insulting." Adams said that "as a token of appreciation," it would distribute "gift cards… valid for use at a selection of restaurants." It's a strange gesture to make at a time when most restaurants are closed. Spectrum employees told Popular Information that they want a pay raise, not a gift card.
But the email shows that Spectrum is finally taking its employees' concerns seriously and is at least taking some initial steps to improve their working conditions and protect their safety.
Heads I win, tails you lose
Early Wednesday morning, Senate and White House negotiators reached an agreement on a multi-trillion dollar bill to address the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the largest emergency aid package in U.S. history. It is expected to be approved by Congress and signed into law within days.
There are some provisions in the massive piece of legislation that will benefit average Americans. There is $250 billion for direct payments to individuals and families. Specifically, "individuals who earn $75,000 or less in adjusted gross income would get direct payments of $1,200 each, with married couples earning up to $150,000 receiving $2,400." Families under the income threshold will get an additional $500 per child. (Individuals that make up to $99,000 and couples that make up to $198,000 can receive a partial payment.)
Overall, about 90% of Americans would qualify for some cash. But if the pandemic lasts months, as most public health experts expect, $1,200 won't last very long.
There is also "a $367 billion federally-guaranteed loan program for small businesses who must pledge not to lay off their workers." If small businesses keep their workers employed until June, they will not have to pay back the loan. This could help a lot of people keep their jobs, assuming these businesses can open their doors again by summer.
For those who end up out of work, the bill includes $250 billion for "a significant expansion of unemployment benefits that would expand unemployment insurance by 13 weeks and include a four-month enhancement." The new benefits would be worth "an extra $600 a week on top of their state benefits for four months." (State unemployment benefits typically range from $200 to $550 per week.) It also expands eligibility to "include freelancers, furloughed employees and gig workers, such as Uber drivers."
But while these numbers are large, they pale in comparison to the money being made available to big business and Wall Street speculators. This legislation continues a troublesome trend where, in good times, corporations and the wealthy prosper while workers' wages remain stagnant. In bad times, corporations and the wealthy get a massive bailout while workers shoulder most of the burden.
$4 trillion in corporate bailouts, with few strings
The bill also provides a $500 billion fund that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin can use to bail out corporations. These funds are routed through the Federal Reserve where, according to Mnuchin, they can be "levered up" to support up to $4 trillion in lending.
$46 billion of the fund is earmarked for passenger airlines. Other limitations on how Mnuchin can use the money are murky.
The bill requires any disbursements to be made public. And it also creates a special Inspector General to scrutinize how the money is being used. There is also a congressional oversight commission that would "examine decisions by Treasury and the Fed" and "consist of five members appointed by the GOP and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate."
But it's unclear whether either the Inspector General or the oversight commission would have any real power over the fund. It's also uncertain "whether investigators will have the ability to compel documents, whether there will be sufficient funding for staff and resources and whether there will be a way to review and potentially alter programs before they launch."
The funds cannot be distributed to businesses fully-owned by Trump or his family, including son-in-law Jared Kushner. (The same provision applies to any federal official.) But the provision only applies to businesses where the prohibited recipient owns more than 20% of the business. So Mnuchin could use these funds to support a business where Kushner or Trump has a 19% stake. He could also use the funds to support a business owned by Jared Kushner's family, provided that Kushner himself owned less than 20%.
There are also provisions that require companies receiving the funds to limit executive compensation and not to engage in stock buybacks. But these provisions can be waived by Mnuchin.
There is no requirement that taxpayers receive equity stakes in companies that get cash from this fund. If they do, what counts as fair compensation is left to Mnuchin's sole discretion.
Moreover, there's no guarantee that Mnuchin will abide by any of the statutory limitations in the bill. There is a specific statutory provision requiring Mnuchin to turn over Trump's tax returns to Congress, which the Way and Means Committee invoked, and Mnuchin ignored.
Senator Elizabeth Warren blasted the provision as a giveaway to the wealthy and well-connected. "We're not here to create… a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends. We're here to help workers, we're here to help hospitals."
There are other provisions buried in the bill, including one that allows the FDIC to guarantee bank debt, that could leave taxpayers on the hook for untold amounts in irresponsible speculation by financial institutions.
Not enough for states
The bill includes $150 billion in support for state governments, which are on the frontlines of addressing the pandemic itself. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — whose state in the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States — said it was insufficient.
What does it mean for New York state? It means $3.8 billion. $3.8 billion sounds like a lot of money, but we’re looking at a revenue shortfall of [as much as] $15 billion. This response to this virus has probably already cost us $1 billion, and it will probably cost us several billion dollars when we’re done.
"It would really be terrible for the state of New York," Cuomo concluded.
Every state will receive a minimum of $1.25 billion in aid. But Washington DC, which has a larger population than several states, is treated as a territory and will receive only $500 million.
Not enough for election protection
Democrats advocated for provisions that would guarantee that the November elections could be conducted fairly and with full participation. They asked for $4 billion for election protection, extended early voting, and guaranteed vote-by-mail. The final bill includes just $400 million for election protection.
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