WASHINGTON – President Biden on Friday signed two executive orders to help struggling families and raise the wages of some workers, once again turning to executive power to advance his economic goals as legislative chances of his broader stimulus package remain uncertain.
“The crisis is only getting worse,” Biden said in a White House address, calling the need to help people out of work and unable to get enough food “an economic imperative.”
“We have the tools to help people,” he said. “So let’s use the tools. All. Now.”
Mr Biden’s executive orders aim to increase the amount of money poor families receive each month for food and to provide additional meals for needy students whose schools have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The president will also ask the Treasury Department to find ways to provide stimulus checks to at least eight million Americans who are eligible for the money but have yet to receive funds.
A second executive order will lay the groundwork for the federal government to demand a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour for its employees and contractors, while making it easier for federal workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits.
The measures were the latest in a week full of executive action by Mr Biden to quickly deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. On Wednesday, his first day in office, Biden issued orders extending federal moratoria on some foreclosures and evictions until the end of March and suspending student loan payments until the end of September.
Most presidents turn to executive action at times, but Mr Biden’s decision to sign 29 ordinances and other directives in three days shows how he is trying to defeat President Donald J. Trump’s agenda and start carving out himself his.
The orders Mr Biden signed on Friday targeted what White House officials called a “growing hunger crisis facing 29 million adults” and up to 12 million children, which has pushed families across the country to queue at food banks for help.
But the president’s executive powers are somewhat limited, and the actions Mr. Biden is taking are relatively small and focused given the scale of the economic pain that is going through the country. Millions of Americans are still out of work and another 900,000 filed for unemployment insurance on Thursday.
Mr Biden, nodding at this reality, again called on Congress to pass the $ 1.9 trillion package he presented this month, saying the economy would be worse off if the states -United were not spending money now to avoid further pain.
“There is a growing economic consensus that we need to act decisively and boldly,” he said. “It cannot be who we are as a country. We cannot, will not let people go hungry. We cannot see people losing their jobs and we must act. “
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said on Friday that the ordinances would bring immediate relief to families, but would not replace the kind of sweeping stimulus package Mr Biden had described.
“These actions are not a substitute for comprehensive legislative relief, but they will provide a vital lifeline for millions of families,” said Deese. “The American people are suffering and they cannot afford to wait.”
But the president’s rapid use of executive action was already attracting scolding from Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida swept aside Mr. Biden’s early moves, saying on Twitter that “a radical left program in a divided country will not help unify our country, it will only confirm the greatest fears of 75 million Americans about the new administration.”
Such dissatisfaction shows that legislative action will not come easily. Democrats hold a slim majority in Congress, and Republicans are already showing signs of resistance to another spending program. This resistance is only expected to increase given that President Nancy Pelosi said on Friday that she would send articles of impeachment to the Senate next week. It could delay any stimulus legislation and further anger Republicans who don’t think the Senate should proceed with an impeachment trial against former President Donald J. Trump.
The White House is debating whether to spend time trying to find a bipartisan deal, as Mr Biden has said he would like, or use a procedural maneuver to get at least part of his proposal to pass through to the government. Senate with a simple majority, avoiding the need for any Republican support.
The orders are part of Mr. Biden’s attempt to override dozens of actions Mr. Trump has taken on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and immigration. Friday’s actions signal a departure from the Trump administration’s attempts to limit the scope of many federal benefits that officials say have created a deterrent for Americans to work.
According to White House estimates, Mr Biden’s latest orders would increase the weekly value of the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, for the approximately 12 million families most dependent on the program. The president pledged to tackle food insecurity, which has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and aid would increase weekly benefits by 15 to 20 percent for a family of four, Deese said.
Congress approved improved benefits as part of its economic aid efforts last year, but the Trump administration did not extend benefits to households receiving maximum benefits under the program.
“This is a repudiation of the slowdown in the previous administration of SNAP benefits to needy families,” said Lauren Bauer, a member of the Brookings Institution who studies the social safety net and children.
The measures are “not a panacea,” but Dr Bauer said they could still make a difference for the millions of families struggling to put food on the table. “I hope these actions will have an impact on children’s food insecurity.
The ordinance will also increase the value of an emergency benefit, which was included in previous economic bailout legislation, to provide money to families to replace free meals that students would have received at school before the pandemic. This expansion would equate to an additional $ 100 every two months for a family of three.
Mr Biden will also seek to allow workers to collect unemployment benefits if they quit jobs they fear will be unsafe amid the pandemic, saying “workers have the federally guaranteed right to refuse a job that will endanger their health, and if they do, they will still be entitled to unemployment insurance, ”White House officials said in a backgrounder detailing the orders.
Some Republicans fought last year against an increase in unemployment benefits, saying workers would quit their jobs or avoid looking for work in order to collect government benefits. University research has can’t stand this fear, and employers have again started cutting jobs as the virus persists, posing a barrier for those who want to find jobs.
Mr Biden will also ask the Treasury Department to find new ways to get stimulus checks, including checks for $ 600 transmitted in December and checks for $ 1,200 transmitted in March, for as much as eight million. eligible people who have not yet received them.
The Trump administration distributed the payments through the Internal Revenue Service, and some people may not have received checks if they hadn’t earned enough money to file their income taxes .
Mr Deese said the Treasury Department would work on creating a new online portal that would allow people who have not received their payments to confirm whether they are eligible and that the Biden administration would also try to make sure they are eligible. engage in outreach activities to make sure people know about the money. awaits them.
Mr. Biden’s second order seeks to overturn some of Mr. Trump’s federal workforce-related actions, including one that gave presidents more leeway to hire and fire workers and others that limited certain employee bargaining rights. The president will also ask federal agencies to determine which of their workers earn less than $ 15 an hour and develop “recommendations to promote a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour for them,” the file says. information.
Alex van Schaick, of the Communications Workers of America, said the move would lift thousands of contract workers out of poverty and benefit women and minorities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. He is organizing with workers at Maximus, a government contractor that operates Medicare call centers and pays employees as little as $ 10.80 an hour.
“This current pay structure has contributed to massive gender and racial income disparities,” van Schaick said. “The wages are not high enough to support a family.
He added, “This path to $ 15 an hour is a huge victory for workers.”
Mr Biden called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour for all workers as part of his stimulus proposal, although this has already met resistance from Republican lawmakers.
The order Mr. Biden signed on Friday would not require an act of Congress because the president has the power to set requirements for federal contractors. But it would also prevent forcing companies to raise their wages.
It would simply pave the way for a requirement that federal contractors who wish to continue doing business with the government pay their workers a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour and emergency paid time off. The ordinance would apply to around four million workers, according to a Brookings Institution Report Last year.