Joe Biden on Friday will sign a pair of executive orders aimed at providing immediate relief to millions of American families grappling with the economic toll of the Covid-19 pandemic and expanding safety protections for federal workers.
Pressing ahead with an ambitious set of executive actions, the new administration is seeking to marshal an “all-of-government” effort to combat hunger as tens of millions of Americans face food insecurity amid historically high unemployment rates.
“The American people can’t afford to wait,” said Brian Deese, the national economic council director, on a call with reporters. “So many are hanging by a thread.”
The measures, he said, were a “critical lifeline” for American families, but were “not a substitute” for the nearly $2tn relief package Biden has called on Congress to pass.
Biden will direct the Department of Agriculture increase a Covid-19 food program that helps families with children who would normally receive free or reduced-price meals at school, as well as expand the emergency increases approved by Congress to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income Americans.
He will also ask the Department of Treasury to update its process for delivering stimulus checks to millions of eligible Americans who reported issues or delays with the first rounds payments. And Biden will the Department of Labor to make clear that out-of-work Americans who refuse employment that could jeopardize their health would still qualify for unemployment benefits. Until now, workers who refused offers to return to their jobs out of concern for their safety no longer qualified for unemployment aid.
The second order is aimed at expanding protections for federal workers by restoring collective bargaining powers and lay the groundwork for the federal government to implement a $15 federal minimum wage. As a first step, Biden will direct federal agencies to conduct a review of federal workers earning less than $15 an hour and develop recommendations for raising their wages.
The latest executive actions come one day after a labor department report showed that unemployment claims remained at historically high levels, with 900,000 Americans filing for unemployment benefits last week. The figures reflected the magnitude of the economic challenges Biden inherited, amid a resurgence of the coronavirus this winter.
Hours after his inauguration, Biden signed an executive order extending a federal pause on evictions through the end of March, a move that will shield millions of Americans struggling to pay rent amid the pandemic. He also directed federal agencies to extend their moratorium on foreclosures of federally guaranteed mortgages and asked the education department to prolong its freeze on federal student loan payments through the end of September.
On Thursday, he unveiled a “full-scale wartime” national Covid-19 strategy aimed at growing the production of vaccines, creating guidelines to reopen schools and businesses and imposing new requirements on mask-wearing.
Biden has long argued that economic recovery is tied to combatting the coronavirus, a starkly different approach to his predecessor who urged states to lift restrictions even as infections rose.
The centerpiece of Biden’s plan to address fallout from the pandemic is a $1.9tn relief package called the American Rescue Plan, which includes $1,400 direct payments to Americans, more generous unemployment benefits and billions of dollars for a national vaccination program.
Already Republicans are objecting to the cost of the legislation, raising doubts about whether Biden will be able to attract bipartisan support as he had hoped. Several Republicans have questioned the need for an additional relief package weeks after they passed a $900bn coronavirus relief bill.
Stressing that urgent action was needed, Deese declined to say how long the White House planned to court Republican support before potentially moving to a process that would allow Democrats to move the legislation forward without them.
His team plans to hold a conference call with a bipartisan group of senators on Sunday to make the case for another round of stimulus, without which he said the nation’s economy would plummet further into “a very serious economic hole”.
“When you’re at a moment that is as precarious as the one we find ourselves in,” he said at a White House press briefing on Friday, “the risk of doing too little the risk of undershooting far outweighs the risk of doing too much.”