Washington Commerce Director Lisa Brown says the state is pursuing ways to help all workers affected by the sudden downturn in the economy.
Brown, the former state Senate majority leader from Spokane, is co-chairing Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 Economic Impact Task Force along with Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzan LeVine.
The primary concern is workers who “fall through the cracks,” Brown said, like those who are independent contractors or are in the “gig economy” and don’t have access to sick leave or unemployment insurance.
“That’s where we’re focusing our attention right now, is on those gaps,” Brown said.
Last week, the Employment Security Department adopted emergency rules in response to the coronavrius and set up a website to help employers and workers navigate available benefits. Those are available at https://esd.wa.gov/newsroom/covid-19.
Mirroring Gov. Jay Inslee’s comments Monday during a news conference, Brown urged Congress to pass legislation that would classify a pandemic as a disaster, allowing the president to declare the spread of the coronavirus a national disaster and reducing the barriers to obtaining unemployment assistance.
Last week, the Washington Legislature authorized a $200 million emergency funding package for the coronavirus response. But exactly how that money is distributed remains to be seen, and Brown acknowledged there will be more requests for assistance than $200 million could possibly cover.
“Public health is No. 1 and making sure there’s appropriate capacity in the health care system to handle the spike of infections whenever and whatever that is, and then immediately the second piece is economic relief,” Brown said.
With bars, restaurants and numerous other businesses forced to temporarily close or severely limit operations, Brown suggested Washington residents keep local and small businesses in mind. Some larger businesses have stepped up, including keeping employees on their full pay despite closures. But smaller businesses might not have the resources to do that.
“Patronize them to the extent that you can, maybe in creative ways, online and takeout and things like that is definitely appreciated,” Brown said.
Seattle-area businesses already faced strict measures before Inslee’s announcement on Sunday, and many reported layoffs. Brown warned that the impact will likely be similar in the Spokane area, but stressed the governor’s actions would be helpful in the long run.
“I don’t think people should take for granted that the effect will be smaller here, it might just be somewhat later,” Brown said. “On the other hand, with these fairly unprecedented social distancing measures, if we do it correctly and quickly, we might actually help to make the impact smaller here, and that’s the goal.”
The state has already tapped a private contractor to conduct an economic assessment of three Puget Sound counties most acutely impacted by the coronavirus, and Brown expects that analysis to expand statewide.
“Hospitality, restaurants and hotels are very much the most dramatically affected right now, but we also know that literally every corner of the economy is affected,” Brown said.
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