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Labor Report

Philadelphia Among Many School Districts Grappling with Reopening Plans

On February 8th, The New York Times reported that about half of America’s school children have yet to return to in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On February 16th, The Wall Street Journal began an article on the nation’s school reopening dilemma by detailing a heated exchange from a recent school board meeting in Mt. Lebanon, where many parents support a return to in-person instruction and teachers have objected, citing ominous health and safety threats.

Similar conflicts have been playing out in public school districts across the country as communities weigh the risks of spreading the virus and the fundamental need to educate children in an engaging and socially rewarding environment.

Yet, the COVID threat is only part of the challenge in Philadelphia and other districts in the Commonwealth. Many districts continue to grapple with the problem of removing toxic contaminants such as asbestos and lead from school buildings.

In Philadelphia, the phased reopening of public schools has been delayed as a mediator reviews a complaint by the city’s teachers’ union that the district has failed to ensure the safe occupancy of school buildings. Students in pre-k through second grade were scheduled to begin hybrid learning on February 22nd. But that plan has been pushed back to March 1st. Students whose parents object to in-person learning can choose to continue remote learning full time.

“The School District made the right decision to delay the reopening of school buildings, as far too many questions regarding safety of buildings for re-occupancy remain unanswered,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said. “The Federation's position that we are unable to verify the safety of buildings for re-occupancy – and in fact we know that many buildings are unsafe for re-occupancy – remains unchanged. We continue to work through many of these issues specifically regarding ventilation with the neutral third party. Our goal of returning to school buildings when it is safe to do so also remains unchanged.”

During a City Council hearing on February 17th, Jordan detailed numerous historic, ongoing, and virus-related health and safety problems identified by the PFT.

“I’d like to provide one more example that really illustrates the distrust of the District’s safety protocols,” he said. “In their recent procurement of various materials needed to prepare buildings, they purchased tape to mark off social distancing measurements. And as it turns out, that tape has lead in it. … I use this example because it is emblematic of so many of the concerns we have regarding reopening school buildings. Our students, and the educators who serve them, deserve a truly transparent process, and most importantly they deserve to be safe when they re-enter school buildings.”

U.S. Infection Rate Continues Decline, But Unemployment Claims Still Rising

The rolling 7-day average of new COVID-19 infections in the United States peaked on January 8th at almost 250,000 people. It has been on a sharp, uninterrupted decline since then, and this week fell below 80,000 for the first time since October.

Scientists have offered several explanations for the decline, according to The Washington Post. The expansion of vaccine administration is one possible factor, as is the sustained use of social distancing and “the natural seasonal ebb of respiratory viruses.”

Yet, the nation’s employment situation is still mired in dire straits.

On February 17th, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 861,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims for the week, an increase of 13,000 from the prior week’s total, which was revised up by 55,000 to 848,000.

“The figures underscore that the job market has stalled, with employers having added a mere 49,000 jobs in January after cutting workers in December,” The Associated Press reported. “Nearly 10 million jobs remain lost to the pandemic. Though the unemployment rate fell last month from 6.7% to 6.3%, it did so in part because some people stopped looking for jobs.”

Several anomalies may be distorting the data, according to the wire service. Surges in fraudulent claims and inconsistent reporting by some states may be inflating numbers on a national scale.

There were 18.3 million people receiving unemployment benefits as of January 30th, down from 19.7 million in the previous week.

“About three-quarters of those recipients are receiving checks from federal benefit programs, including programs that provide jobless aid beyond the 26 weeks given by most states,” the AP reported. “That trend suggests that a sizable proportion of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, reflecting a bleak job market for many.”

Last month, Congress extended federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits through the Continued Assistance Act. Without further legislative action, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) programs will all expire on March 14th, 2021.

President Reiterates Support for $15 Federal Minimum Wage, But Procedural Questions Remain

With the U.S. House expected to vote on a final version of the $1.9 trillion federal pandemic relief package during the week of February 22nd, signals emanating from the nation’s capital have been mixed regarding the status of a $15 per hour minimum wage proposal supported by the president and Democratic leaders of Congress.

During a February 16th town hall hosted by CNN, President Biden reiterated his call for Congress to adopt $15 minimum wage legislation, despite a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office stating that a $15 minimum wage would result in the loss of 1.4 million jobs and increase the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years.

“The vast majority of the economists, and there are studies that show by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it could have an impact on a number of businesses, but it would be de minimis, et cetera,” the president said. “Here’s the deal. It’s about doing it gradually.”

The same CBO report also concluded the policy would increase wages for at least 17 million people and lift 900,000 out of poverty.

“I think there is equally as much, if not more evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and, long run and medium run, benefit small businesses as well as large businesses,” the president told the network. “And it would not have such a dilatory effect, but that’s a debatable issue.”

Yet, days before the CNN town hall, the president told a group of mayors and governors during a private meeting that the proposed federal minimum wage hike is “unlikely to happen” in the near term, according to Politico, which cited an account of the president’s remarks provided to the news agency by “a person in the room.”

“I really want this in (the relief bill) but it just doesn’t look like we can do it because of reconciliation,” Biden reportedly told the group. “I’m not going to give up. But right now, we have to prepare for this not making it.”

The $15 minimum wage language was included in the version of the relief bill adopted by the U.S. House Committee on Education & Labor on February 10th. Yet, there has been a question of whether U.S. Senate rules would prevent the adoption of minimum wage language through reconciliation, a process that allows budget-related legislation to bypass the filibuster and gain passage by a simple majority.

Without the reconciliation process in effect, it takes 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to end debate on a bill and force a vote.

The current make-up of the Senate is 48 Democrats, 2 Independents who caucus with Democrats, and 50 Republicans, with the Democratic vice president serving as a tiebreaking vote when needed. At least two Democratic senators have already stated they oppose a $15 federal minimum wage.

Some opponents of the minimum wage language have argued that it doesn’t meet the budgetary requirements of reconciliation rules. But supporters of the language, including former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, say that the minimum wage hike would affect the budget more than other policies that have already been adopted through reconciliation.

Reich tweeted, “CBO says minimum wage boost will affect budget more than 2 measures Republicans passed as part of their 2017 tax bill – ending Obamacare’s individual mandate and allowing oil drilling in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.”

Another consideration for lawmakers in the coming days will be the overall price tag of the relief package. Nine U.S. House committees have approved portions of the package totaling $1.95 trillion in costs, while the package is limited to $1.89 trillion in accordance with the Fiscal 2020-21 budget resolution adopted by Congress.