Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) joins Yahoo Finance's Jessica Smith to discuss Washington's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
JESSICA SMITH: I'm Jessica Smith, here with Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, joining me to talk about the coronavirus response. Senator, thank you for joining us on Skype today.
GARY PETERS: Great to be with you.
JESSICA SMITH: So first off, we want to start with some of the more recent news. President Trump says he is cutting us funding for the World Health Organization. What kind of impact do you think this is going to have on the fight against the virus, and do you think he has reason to have any of these concerns?
GARY PETERS: I don't-- it's kind of hard to understand why you would cut off funding to a World Health Organization that's trying to coordinated the response to a pandemic. We should be all working together. The global community needs to come together to be able to deal with us, and I would hope that we could all work together to make sure that that's happening.
JESSICA SMITH: I also want to ask about funding for the paycheck protection program. It is set to run out at some point this week, and it seems like there is just a bit of a stalemate in Congress. Do you think there is going to be some breakthrough before that program runs out of money?
GARY PETERS: We certainly have to help small businesses, something I'm very passionate about, work to get that provision first put into the legislation. There's no question the lifeblood of our economy are small businesses. That's where most of the job creation occurs, and as we get through and have to move towards reopening the economy, that doesn't happen as efficiently if you don't have small businesses that can really drive it.
So it's critical. We all get that, but we want to make sure the money is definitely going to those businesses that need it the most and those small businesses that are literally just hanging on by a thread. But we want to move that through.
So I think there's going to be movement, but I think, you know, we have to also put this in perspective. As important as that is, we also have to make sure our hospitals have the resources that they need in order to continue to deal with what is first and foremost a public health crisis. So we want to make sure they're getting the resources they need, and we have state and local governments that are really struggling right now as well. And we're hoping that we can deal with all of that in a package, deal with the gaps that are clearly been exposed after the passage of the CARES Act and where additional work needs to be done.
JESSICA SMITH: I mean, where could there be a compromise? Because at this point, it looks like both sides are kind of digging in. The Republicans saying they just want this clean funding. Obviously, your party wanting that funding for hospitals, for state and local governments. How do you move forward?
GARY PETERS: It's beyond me why we can't come together. I don't know why the Republicans are opposed to helping hospitals and why they're opposed to helping state and local governments that are struggling right now. You know, we did this on a bipartisan basis. You look at the legislation that passed, we had a $2 trillion bill that passed unanimously.
It's hard to get anything to pass unanimously, let alone something of the magnitude of what we saw in the CARES Act, and people, we came together and said, this is not about party. This is not about political gamesmanship. This is about getting money into the hands of folks who really need it. And I'm not sure why the Republicans are digging in and saying, we don't need to help hospitals, and we don't need to help our state and local governments that are struggling. It doesn't make sense to me.
We all agree that small businesses need help. There's no pushback from me or that I know of my Democratic colleagues that are saying, we don't want to help small businesses. We do, and we want to be aggressive, and we're going to need to put more money in. We're all with the Republicans on that, but the Republicans should also see that our hospitals need help too.
JESSICA SMITH: I wanted to dig into your state specifically. When you look at people filing for unemployment, your state is among the hardest hit. What are you hearing from businesses, from workers in your state? And is Michigan equipped to handle all of those unemployment claims and make sure the money is getting to people quickly?
GARY PETERS: Well, they're working very hard, but it is overwhelming. I've been talking to the folks here at the state, and as you may know, actually, it was my bill, the Pandemic Assistance Act, that opened up the eligibility for unemployment, much broader than traditionally is allowed under the system. Meaning small business owners can sign up, folks who are independent contractors, people in the gig economy.
So we've opened that up, and it was basically patterned from what we do with other natural disasters. So a hurricane, for example, when that hits, we open up unemployment insurance more broadly, because we know people are suddenly unemployed and are in pretty difficult shape. A lot of folks are literally a paycheck away from financial disaster, and they need help quickly. And so we put that in this federal bill, thinking that basically we have a hurricane that's sweeping the entire country.
We should be using the same kind of mechanisms, but when you do that, there's tremendous demand because of the impact of what we're seeing. And we went from, in Michigan, I believe that they were processing somewhere around 1,000 a week of unemployment claims prior to the COVID-19, and now you're looking at over 300,000. At the same time, you're shutting down offices in order to protect folks, and you have to do everything virtually and on telephone.
They are scrambling and working to catch up with that. They're hiring people. They're transferring people from other state agencies that are now working with the unemployment system. They're working with outside contractors to man the phones. So they're working as aggressively as they can, but it is a monumental task, but we're starting to see those checks now go out.
JESSICA SMITH: You're working to get frontline workers pandemic pay, a premium pay for these frontline workers. Do you think there's any appetite for that on a phase four or another emergency package?
GARY PETERS: I certainly hope so. We have to step up and help those frontline workers who are putting themselves at risk. There are essential employees, and we certainly think about certainly the health care professionals, our doctors and nurses and other medical techs. But I think it's really important to look at all of the other essential employees out there that are putting themselves at risk.
They have to go to work, and if they don't go to work, folks like you and I can't be doing these virtual interviews at our home. People can't stay in place. We can't be doing the kind of social distancing that we need to do.
And we want people to do that, but you have to have folks in grocery stores, for example. If we can't go to the grocery store and get groceries, we're in trouble-- people that are stocking those shelves, people that are in the supply chain. Even folks in the hospitals, we always talk about doctors and nurses in Texas, heroes, and they are, but it's also the custodial staff, the janitors that are cleaning. If you don't have a sterilized hospital or a clean hospital, particularly during a pandemic, you can't operate. It is a really difficult situation.
And think broadly-- people in pharmacies, people who are on the transit workers. Many of the folks who go to those grocery store jobs take public transit, and you have transit drivers. So we certainly all owe them a debt of gratitude and thanks, but they deserve more than just our thanks.
They deserve to have additional compensation, and so what we're proposing, and hopefully will be part of it, would be an additional $13 an hour for those folks who are essential employees to keep the economy and the country actually functioning, so we just don't collapse, and are also interfacing with the public. And when they do that, they put themselves and their families at risk. So it's basically hazard pay, and that's not a new concept in the government. Those folks who are in dangerous situations get hazard pay. These folks need hazard pay.
JESSICA SMITH: All right. Senator, I think we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan.
GARY PETERS: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.