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Economy

Jones: Trump’s threat to shut down the government over a wall is a “political ploy”

Chip Brownlee

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A government shut down this weekend became more probable Thursday after President Donald Trump told GOP lawmakers that he would not sign a bill to fund the government because it doesn’t include money for his border wall, a campaign promise that he has yet to fulfill.

The threats blew a gaping hole in the budget process.

The Senate — led in large part by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the chair of the Senate appropriations committee — passed a plan Wednesday to avert a shutdown. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, also supported the stop-gap bill that would have temporarily funded the government.

On a phone call with reporters Thursday, Jones said the president’s threat to upend the federal budget was a ploy to gin up his political base.

The Senate’s passage of the short-term solution was met with defiance by Trump Thursday when, as the House was set to vote on the measure, Trump told congressional Republicans he wouldn’t sign it if they did.

“The president informed us that he will not sign the bill that came up from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “So what we’re going to do is go back to the House and work with our members. We want to keep the government open, but we also want to see an agreement that protects the border.”

The shutdown of some key federal agencies, which could begin midnight on Friday just days before Christmas, could leave thousands of federal employees temporarily without a job and a paycheck. The Senate’s plan had the backing of Republican leadership and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

Despite an agreement in the House and Senate before Trump’s threat Thursday, the deal has ground to a halt as the president demands at least $5 billion in funding for “steel slats or a wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats had refused to fund the wall in the continuing resolution needed to keep the government, though they offered to fund part of it in a DACA deal that failed earlier this year largely because the president signaled he wouldn’t sign it.

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Later on Thursday, the House passed a version of the resolution that included $5.7 billion for the wall, but that version is almost certain to die in the Senate, where it would need Democratic support to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass.

Conservatives in the House urged Trump not to give up on his fight for a wall, which has long been a conservative hope and a rallying cry for the most conservative strata of Trump’s GOP base. He faced some rare criticism from some members of the conservative Freedom Caucus for “caving” on the wall funding before he decided to reverse his support for the short-term spending measure. Trump blamed Republican leadership for failing to get the funding as part of the deal.

“I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries — but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!”

The looming government shutdown added additional uncertainty to a chaotic day when the stock market was tumbling, fears of a recession rose, Trump announced plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest.

Shelby supported the stop-gap bill in the appropriations committee he chairs and on the floor of the Senate. The senator called on lawmakers to keep the government open.

“Having already funded 75 percent of the government on time with broad bipartisan support, I am disappointed that we could not come to an agreement on the remaining 25 percent,” Shelby said Wednesday. “However, I am committed to keeping the government open and will take the next six weeks to continue working toward that end.  The President is right that we must secure our borders.  I hope that this continuing resolution will provide us the time to work out our differences in a thoughtful manner and reach a bipartisan consensus on important national priorities.”

The temporary funding would keep the government open only through Feb. 8, at which point Trump will need more Democrats to keep the government running as Democrats are poised to take over the House in January. With a Democratic House, the prospects of funding for his proposed border wall will become slim. The battle of the temporary funding this week is largely seen as a last-ditch effort to get some sort of funding for his top campaign promise before Democrats put their own slats between Trump and the funding he needs to start construction.

Jones criticized Trump for backing down from the DACA deal earlier this year that would have provided up to $25 billion in funding for border security, part of which could have been used for Trump’s wall. The administration backed down from the deal largely because it couldn’t get the curbs on legal immigration it had requested as part of a trade for congressional authorization of DACA.

“The administration wanted more curbs on legal immigration,” Jones said on a conference call Thursday with reporters, “not the border security, they were fine with that. But they wanted curbs on legal immigration, and so they killed that billed. So now here we are, at the 11th hour, for nothing but a political ploy in which a bipartisan group of senators including Sen. Shelby, Sen. Leahy, and the appropriations process and the appropriations committee appropriated and gave $1.3 billion for border security that could be used partially for a wall, other things as well.”

At this stage, Jones said he couldn’t see himself supporting any funding for a wall because it should be part of an overall immigration package, not a short-term funding bill.

“For the president now to come in and threaten the security of thousands and thousands of federal workers and to shut down the government during the holidays is just wrong, wrong wrong. We need to get past that,” Jones said.

Jones blamed the House of Representatives for failing to follow the Senate in funding the government in a timely fashion. Since taking over the Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby has managed to pass a number of on-time funding bills for the first time in a decade.

It has been the House and the president who have delayed the process.

“Now we’re at a point where we still have to kick it down the road, which I don’t particularly like, but we should not be shutting down the government over this particular issue (the border wall),” Jones said. “If that’s something he wants to do, let’s take it up after the first of the year. There are opportunities, instead of threatening just for political play to a base, there are opportunities in the next Congress to get some real things done on immigration if the president wants to get some things done.”

Jones said if Trump continues to play his way or the highway, nothing will happen, and the American people will suffer for it.

“I was part of a group that gave money for a wall, but I think it’s got to be part of an overall package,” Jones said. “I don’t think [Democrats] can do it with a political gun to our head like the president is doing now. This is pure politics. It is raw politics. It has nothing to do with real immigration reform or anything else. It is playing to a political base and ginning people up after an election.”

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Congress

Alabama municipalities may be left out of $2 trillion stimulus package

Bill Britt

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As the largest economic stimulus in American history flows to states and municipalities around the nation, stipulations in the two-trillion dollar emergency fund may leave Alabama cities out altogether.

As enacted, the third stimulus bill, the CARE Act, directs funding for states, and local governments, the catch is that the act only allocates funds for municipalities with a population of 500,000 or more.

No city in Alabama has a population of 500,000, leaving an unanswered question as to who gets what and who gets nothing?

The state has 463 municipalities spread out over 67 counties. Not one has a population nearing half a million yet each one is experiencing the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working with Treasury and the Governor’s office to understand what municipalities can expect,” said Greg Cochran, deputy director of the Alabama League of Municipalities.

Alabama will receive $1.9 billion from the stimulus package, as a block grant, which could be allocated in a 55-45 split, according to the League’s estimation with around $1.04 billion to the state and $856 million going to local governments.

“Currently, there is little guidance on how those shared resources are to be distributed to local governments,” said Cochran. “Nor is there clear directive that those resources are to be shared with local governments with less than 500,000 populations.”

The National League of Cities is also seeking clarification from Treasury Department on these questions and guidelines to ensure funds are shared with local governments.

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“Congress is working on a fourth stimulus bill, and we are working diligently with our Congressional delegation, NLC and other stakeholders to have all cities and towns are recognized for federal funding assistance,” Cochran said.

However, on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cast doubt on a fourth package, saying that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s needed to “stand down” on passing another rescue bill. “She needs to stand down on the notion that we’re going to go along with taking advantage of the crisis to do things that are unrelated to the crisis,” as reported by The Washington Post.

Alabama’s biggest cites, Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, are already facing strain under the weight of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But so are smaller cities like Auburn, Hoover, Madison, Opelika and others. Lee County and Chambers County have far more cases of the virus per capita than the state’s more populous counties.

“I was not really happy with the way that they limited the money,” Jones said, adding that the money could go to counties with 500,000 or above. Jefferson County would qualify for that.

Jones also said he would like to see more money for city and county expenses not directly related to COVID-19 like fire and police. “We’re going to have to do what I think we can to backfill some of the expenses,” Jones said.

In addition to health and welfare concerns for residents during the COVID-19 calamity, cites are dealing with what is certain to be a downward spiral on tax revenue and other sources of income and a subsequent rise in costs. The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that at least 90,000 people have applied for unemployment compensation in the state over the last two weeks.

“Knowing that our municipalities will experience a loss in revenue because they rely on sales, motor fuel and lodgings taxes, we are urging our state Legislature to be mindful of actions they take when they return regarding unfunded mandates/preemptions,” said Cochran. “Additionally, we are concerned about the adverse impact this could have on 2021 business licenses, which are based on sales from 2020.”

The combined population of the state’s two biggest cities, Birmingham and Montgomery, do not equal 500,000, the threshold for receiving funds under the Care Act.

Cochran says that the League is working tirelessly to find answers as to how local governments can participate in Congress’s emergency funding.

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Economy

More than 80,000 joined the unemployment rolls in Alabama last week

Chip Brownlee

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More than 80,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation last week, the Alabama Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Labor say. That number is about eight times the number of claims filed the week before when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson Tara Hutchison said Monday that some 74,056 people filed an initial jobless claim during the week that ended March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data. That number was revised upward to 80,196 in a U.S. Department of Labor report released Thursday, April 2.

More than 40,000 filed during the first four days of the week last week, with the number jumping past 70,000 by the end of the week before being revised even further upward. The new numbers bring the two-week total to more than 90,000 in the state.

About 10,892 people filed initial claims during the week ending March 21, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data. That number was also revised upward. That was also a seven-fold increase compared to the week that ended March 14.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim last week is far more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

“In a sharp contrast to earlier recessions when the manufacturing sector leads, this time the service sector—accounting for 67% of the US economy—has seen quick and widespread declines,” said Hung Tran, a nonresident senior fellow in global business and economics at the Atlantic Council. “This probably will make the contraction deeper, quicker and take longer to recover.”

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

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“Current unemployment levels are not far-fetched given the fact that industries including retail, hospitality, and leisure have essentially been shut down overnight due to COVID-19,” said Alexis Crow, an economist at the Atlantic Council. “While some industry bodies’ claims may be undershot, and others somewhat overshot, it will be critically important to see how the US steps in to help workers maintain their jobs in order to create greater stability in the economy. How quickly industries ‘bounce back’ remains to be seen, but once the health crisis is contained, businesses in the hardest hit sectors are likely to return, outlasting those which had vulnerabilities prior to the corona crisis.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims during the week ending March 21. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC. More than 6.6 million people across the country filed unemployment claims during the week ending March 28.

In Alabama, you can apply for unemployment by phone or online. There have been issues with people having trouble getting through on the telephone system. The state has said freelancers, independent contractors and gig economy workers can now begin filing.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having trouble accepting and processing the filings.

WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

To help alleviate the strain, the state has waived fees that are typically charged when an employer files for their employees.

To be eligible to file for unemployment insurance related to a COVID-19 layoff or firing, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Those who are quarantined by a medical professional or a government agency,
  • Those who are laid off or sent home without pay for an extended period by their employer due to COVID-19 concerns,
  • Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Or, those who are caring for an immediate family member who is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Workers can file for benefits online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is encouraged.

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Economy

Department of Labor closed Birmingham unemployment office as COVID-19 spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people applying for unemployment in Alabama continues to skyrocket amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are fewer people handling those claims this month than last. 

The Alabama Department of Labor closed an office in Birmingham and let some workers go earlier this month. That staffing shortage, coupled with an onslaught of new claims, has slowed the time it’s taking to process them, one worker told APR

Approximately 74,056 people filed unemployment claims during the week that ended  March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data. That was far more than had ever been filed for any week going back to 1987, when the U.S. Department of Labor began keeping data on weekly unemployment claims. 

“Where we would have alerted a claimant that it would take two to three weeks, now the verbiage is, as soon as administratively possible,” the employee at the department told APR by phone Saturday. The person asked not to be identified as they’re still employed with the state. 

It’s currently taking between six and seven weeks to process claims, the worker said, and people who have applied are expressing concern over the long wait. 

“It’s an issue,” the worker said. 

The employee said workers at the now-closed Birmingham office were called into a meeting on Feb. 18 and told the office would close for good on March 13. Anyone who wanted to continue working for the department had to report to the Montgomery office on March 16, the worker said, or they would be “considered to have quit.” 

In a response to APR’s questions, Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison wrote that “Eleven employees found other positions in a career center or tax office, three employees resigned in lieu of transferring, two are retiring, and six conditional employees were separated.”

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There was no discussion in that Feb. 18 meeting of the novel coronavirus or the possibility of mass filings, the workers said. There was discussion of what might happen if another recession hit, the person said, but administrators didn’t have a plan for that. 

China informed the World Health Organization about the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31. President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 banned foreign nationals entry into the country if they had traveled to China within the last two weeks. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Feb. 18, the day workers were told the Birmingham office would be closing. 

A day after the Feb. 18 meeting at the Birmingham office Iran’s COVID-19 breakout began. 

By March 8, eight days before workers were ordered to show up to the Montgomery office, Italy ordered a lockdown of 60 million residents. Three days later the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

By March 13, the day the Birmingham office closed, there were 2,611 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. 

The worker said just 15 of the 37 employees made the move to the Montgomery office, and those who did are faced with an overwhelming workload and are spending hours each day doing jobs that others had done before the move. All but one of the 15 adjudicate claims, the person said, meaning they process them and determine whether the person should receive unemployment benefits. 

Hutchison told APR that the decision to close the Birmingham office was made because of funding and budget issues. 

“The Unemployment Insurance program’s budget has been cut repeatedly for several years.  The building’s rental and overhead costs were eliminated by transferring those employees to the Montgomery Call Center,” Hutchison said in the message. 

The worker questioned, however, why the department waited until a month before the planned closure to inform the staff, and expressed concern that there 

“As you know, we are taking in remarkable numbers of new claims due to COVID-19.  There was no way to know at the time that this situation would occur. We are working constantly to improve service, and one of those ways is by reutilizing those employees who transferred to other positions, and having them accept claims,” Hutchison said. “We are also looking to bring back those conditional employees who have separated, if they haven’t found other work.  Additionally, the federal government is providing increased funding to assist with staffing issues.”

The Birmingham office was already short-staffed enough to have been allowing staff there overtime pay to handle existing claims, the employee said. 

“This just added just a whole new level,” the person said. 

The workers said staff at the department want the public to know that they care and are working hard to get claims processed as quickly as possible. 

“We want to make sure that we’re doing the job right. We want to make sure that we’re following guidelines that we’ve had in place all throughout our employment with how to do these claims,” the person said. “If the public knew that, that would be great.”

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Freelancers, gig workers can begin filing unemployment claims

Chip Brownlee

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Employees like freelancers and the self-employed can now file for an unemployment claim in Alabama, the Alabama Department of Labor said Tuesday, under the CARES Act, the coronavirus response bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last week.

The Alabama Department of Labor is encouraging employees who believe they may qualify for programs under the CARES Act to file a claim.

These employees will also need to certify weekly to continue to let the department know that they remain unemployed.

Although ADOL does not yet have technical guidance or a start date regarding the CARES Act programs, benefits may be paid retroactively from the time the employee separated from his or her job or otherwise became eligible under the federal CARES Act, not from the time the application was submitted or approved.

In Alabama, many freelancers, independent contractors and the self-employed are not typically able to file for unemployment insurance.

Last week, more than 70,000 people filed an initial jobless claim. Claims can be filed online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382.

The Department of Labor is asking for patience when trying to file a claim.

ADOL says employees who may be affected include:

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  • The self-employed
  • Church employees
  • Non-profit and governmental employees
  • Independent contractors
  • Gig economy workers
  • Those who have exhausted their regular UI benefits.

These employees should also meet one of these conditions:

  • The individual has been diagnosed; or
  • A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed; or
  • The individual is providing care to a household or family member; or
  • A child or other person for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; or
  • The individual was scheduled to start work and does not have a job as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual has become “the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19”; or
  • The individual has to quit their job because of COVID-19; or
  • The individual’s place of employment is closed because of COVID-19.

This list is not exhaustive.

Further details regarding the CARES Act programs will be forthcoming, the department says, including information regarding Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides for an additional $600 a week in unemployment compensation benefits.

The additional $600 weekly benefit will only be available for weeks beginning March 29, 2020

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