On Senate Floor, Portman Discusses Need to Incentivize Returning to Work to Boost Economy as America Reopens

May 20, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – On Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed the need to incentivize individuals to return to work, which will be critical to a robust economic recovery as the American economy slowly and safely begins to reopen. Portman believes it is critical that we have a workforce that's ready to step into their old jobs or newly available jobs as the economy reopens. 

Portman believes that a return-to-work bonus for individuals reentering the workplace would better help get the American economy running again. He highlighted his proposal of providing $450 a week for individuals returning to work, meaning they’d receive their wages plus this $450 bonus. Portman believes this proposal would ensure that there are as few situations as possible where staying on unemployment is more lucrative than returning to work. He believes this provision should be a part of the next coronavirus response stimulus legislation considered in the Senate. 

According to recent research from the American Action Forum and from the University of Chicago, between 60-70 percent of individuals currently on unemployment are making more than they did in their prior job thanks to this federal supplement. Furthermore, the bottom 20 percent of wage earners are making, on average, double what they made in the workforce through this UI program. Portman is hopeful that as the House and Senate work together on the next legislative package, that they can focus on the economy and incentivizing people to get back to work. 

A transcript of his remarks can found below and a video can be found here. 


“Mr. President, I’m here on the floor to talk about how Congress can do a better job in responding to the coronavirus pandemic that’s gripped our country. I just thought that debate was very interesting we just heard a moment ago about what we should do going forward. This crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It has devastated so many families. It has turned our lives upside down. Put an enormous strain on our health care system, our front line health care workers, our researchers, our first responders working around the clock to help patients and look for treatments.  

“For the past couple of months every American has been asked to do his or her part through social distancing, through doing smart things like wearing masks, like being sure that we’re doing all we can within our home, within our workplace, out in public to stop the dangerous virus - to stop it from spreading. And I think these have helped. I think these measures have made a difference and I think we’re in a better place by most metrics on the public health danger. I saw the numbers from Ohio a moment ago here and we have fewer new positive cases today than we’ve had over the past week or the past few weeks on average. So we’re beginning to make progress.  

“But it’s come at an enormous cost to our economy. And I would say even at an enormous cost to our culture and our society. Since the crisis began a couple of months ago, more than 36 million Americans have lost their jobs or filed for unemployment. Some estimates show that we could potentially hit a 25 percent unemployment rate before this is over. I think we probably will. By the way, that would match the worst of our country's unemployment that we’ve ever seen. That would be during the Great Depression. That’s where we’re headed.  

“Some small businesses have had to close their doors, others are teetering right on the brink of bankruptcy. Hospitals have been closed for needed procedures like mammograms, cancer screenings. More are being missed every day and basic health care is at risk. So that’s one consequence that we don’t always focus on, but our health care system has had to respond to the coronavirus appropriately. But there’s a balance here and the result has been we’ve had other health care needs that have gone unmet. Without that revenue, by the way, from surgeries, so-called elective surgeries -- although some aren't very elective, like there are necessary surgeries for a back or a knee or something like that -- many hospitals now are in very deep financial trouble because that’s how they make most of their money. Colleges and universities, of course, are losing revenue and children are out of school, which is not a good thing, because our kids, many of whom are not able to get the same help at home that they can get at school are falling behind.  

“We've also got to acknowledge the impacts of isolation -- on people's mental health, on substance abuse. I talked to an individual earlier today who focuses a lot on human trafficking, an area I've worked a lot in, and he was talking about the increase he’s seen in domestic violence and human trafficking and the calls that have increased -- the number of suicides. This is all troubling. This kind of a crisis, therefore, requires swift and decisive action to ensure that we’ve got the resources and got the help to be able to respond to both the health care crisis --which we have to address on the coronavirus front -- but also on the economic and the broader of societal issues we talked about here and how it impacts us and the rest of our lives. It’s a tough balance. I think, for the most part, the Congress and the Trump administration have done that -- have responded swiftly and correctly with major new legislation.  

“We came together here in Congress on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation already that has addressed the health care crisis that the virus has caused. We've also passed legislation that's helped on the economic crisis that's caused by government at all levels effectively pumping the brakes on the economy. The legislation that's been enacted of course isn’t perfect. It’s thousands of pages and it’s now four different bills that have been passed already, but I think it was necessary for us to act quickly and in a unified manner on a bipartisan basis to get stuff done around here. And by the way, that bipartisanship has been a welcome change, because that's not typical for this place. So far, in each of the four pieces of legislation we’ve passed to respond to the challenges of this pandemic, an average of 500 of the 535 members of the House and Senate have voted in favor of passage. That's how bipartisan it has been -- 500 of the 535 on average have voted “yes” on these four pieces of legislation.  

“These are not small bills. Combined, the funds provided by these first four rescue packages total about $2.8 trillion. That’s $2.8 trillion. $2,800 billion. The Phase 3 CARES Act alone, the most recent one we passed, is about $2.2 trillion in resources. That’s an unprecedented amount of spending. It’s never been done before. Certainly never in such a short period of time.  

“Now Congress is talking about a fifth rescue package. The fifth rescue package is being talked about -- it's already passed the House of Representatives. It’s being talked about even though, and this might surprise you, only about half of the $2.8 trillion in the first four packages has actually been dispersed. Think about that. Only about half of the money in the first four legislative projects that we've undertaken here has actually gone out the door to the intended recipients, and yet we’re talking about another package.  

“For example, the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses stay afloat still has about 25 percent of its original capacity that hasn't gone out -- about $160 billion. Well below half of the funding -- the $175 billion Congress provided to hospitals -- has yet to be sent out under the Provider Relief Fund. So less than half of the health care dollars have even gone out the door. Of the roughly $450 billion that the CARES Act gave to Treasury to unlock the Federal Reserve lending facilities, less than $40 billion of that has been operational. That's right, less than ten percent of the money designed to provide direct lending to businesses of all sizes, so they can stay in business and hire people, has been sent out. 

“So even though about half the money from the CARES Act hasn't even been spent, and we still don’t have a good handle, of course, on how the money that has been sent out is being spent, Democrats in the House have gone ahead and passed a new rescue package. In many respects, it’s a wish list of Democratic priorities — that's been talked about here on the floor —  some related to the coronavirus and some not. It passed by a near-party line vote, I think one Republican voted “yes” and more than a dozen Democrats, more moderate Democrats, voted “no.” Again, this is a $3 trillion package. $3,000 billion. That’s more than the total spending of all four of the previous coronavirus bills. So all four of the previous combined is less than the spending the House is recommending for the fifth coronavirus bill. It's actually also a lot more money than Congress would normally appropriate in an entire fiscal year. It's about twice as much as Congress appropriated for the current 12 month period we're in.  

“So the appropriation for this fiscal year, 2020, is less than half of what the House is now proposing to spend in one bill. So I think, you know, we’ve got to be very cautious and we’ve got to be sure it’s the right amount of money going out because it’s a huge and unprecedented spending package. Our annual deficit here in the Congress was already projected to be over $1 trillion. We were already running a large deficit. By the way, it’s only been at that level four times in the history of our country. So the $1 trillion was already viewed by many of us, including me, to be an unacceptably high number for our annual deficit.  

“Now the estimate is that this year’s annual deficit will be between $3.7 trillion and $4.2 trillion. Mindboggling. We’ve just never had deficits like this before. Of course, that adds to the $23 trillion ational debt which was already at record levels. So we’re entering dangerous, uncharted waters here from a fiscal point of view. Most economists agree that this increases the chance of a fiscal and therefore a financial crisis that would follow. Of course we’ve got to respond to this immediate crisis. And again, I voted for the first four bills. I believe it was necessary to act and act quickly. But I also believe there are real limits as to how much financial risk we should take beyond the, again, $2.8 trillion we've already spent in the first four bills.  

“We’ve got to be sure at a minimum that every new dollar is spent as wisely as possible so it’s as targeted as possible. Even overlooking the massive $3 trillion price tag, by the way, the House bill also focuses on some things that just seem unrelated to this crisis. For example, the House spends $136 billion on repealing the cap on the state and local tax deduction. So, there is a deduction, but it's capped right now. By the way, this policy, the $136 billion policy they have in their bill would deliver half of its benefits - 50% of its tax benefits - to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. Tell me how that’s related to the coronavirus.  

“To put that in some context, we could use that same amount of money, the $136 billion, to provide almost two million more PPP loans to small businesses that need it most -- movie theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants, bars. There are also provisions that would force states to adopt broad changes in their election laws, regardless of whether they want to or not. Now, election law has always been in the province of the states. But that’s in this legislation. They also want to raise taxes on employers. Bad time to raise taxes. We want employers to stay in business because they’re the ones who create the jobs. They also want to help cannabis growers, which I think is interesting. Cannabis is mentioned dozens of times in the legislation. They also want $50 million as an example for environmental justice grants. What does that have to do with the coronavirus?  

“Once more of the existing funds are delivered -- in other words as I said earlier, of the first four bills, only about half of it has even gone to the intended recipients -- but once more of these existing funds are delivered, and we know more about what’s working, what’s not working, where the needs are, I suspect more funds will be needed. They'll probably be needed for the health care side of this, for testing as an example. And that's probably money well-spent. There probably needs to be more flexibility as the senator from Louisiana just talked about. I believe there does need to be more flexibility.  

“I also believe we need to find out once the money goes to the local communities what their budgets look like. Do they need more money to be able to continue to provide police protection, firefighter salaries, EMS services? We don’t know that yet. How can we know it when the money hasn’t even gone down yet -- In Ohio, not one penny has gone except for the money that went to the largest five counties and the one large city. But the part that went to the state hasn’t even gone down to the local community. And that's happening all over the country. So we need more information to be able to know how much of this new spending is necessary. But again, even with all the new spending, this new $3 trillion House bill does very little to do something else really important in the next bill, which is help get the economy moving.  

“So, again, it raises taxes on businesses. It does a number of other things that have nothing to do with the coronavirus. What it doesn’t do is it doesn’t provide the stimulus you would hope would be in the next bill that we're going to pass. Because that’s what everybody is looking for right now. How do you do something here in Washington that makes it easier to create jobs, make it easier to invest, make it easier for small businesses to get back on their feet?  

“Much of what we did in the first four bills was really a rescue package. And it was necessary. People had lost their jobs for no reason that they could do anything about. It wasn’t their fault. 36 million Americans. So we had to do something to shore that up. The direct payments, the unemployment insurance, the other things. But we had to help small businesses with the PPP program to ensure they weren't going to close their doors, some forever. But those were more rescue packages to get us through the storm, to weather the storm. Now we got to figure out how do we do something to actually get this economy moving again?  

“That ought to be the goal. Because there's a limit to how much federal tax dollars can be relied on to subsidize the economy. The better way is to get the economy moving. Get revenues flowing again, reopen, therefore, our hospitals and schools. Hospitals can get more revenue if they can reopen and do more procedures and they can keep from either shuttering their doors or relying on the federal taxpayer for more and more subsidies. 

“Getting back to work is critical. And we've got to do it in a safe way. And we can. Got to use social distancing, smart practices, got to be sure we have the testing. I agree with all of that. But any new legislation that Congress considers has to include measures that are going to help get people back into the workforce safely and get this economy moving again. I think that should include some tax incentives for investment in jobs. I think  it should include some targeted infrastructure investments to create good jobs and also economic benefits that come from the right kind of infrastructure.  

“One place to start, I think, is the federal highway projects. We need to pass that bill around here. But also there are a bunch of state highway projects that would normally be funded by state gas tax -- because we aren't driving nearly as much the state gas tax has plummeted. So in the state of Ohio, for instance, there's a lot of great projects out there that have gone all through the process. They've been vetted, they've gone through a merit-based process. They’re ready to go. In other words, they're shovel-ready. And yet the state is not going to have enough money to pay for them. So rather than send the money to the states, how about sending some money directly to these infrastructure projects? Good jobs, economic benefits. Analysis is, the right kind of infrastructure investments, you spend a dollar and you get back more than dollar in terms of revenue from the economic benefit.  

So, that’s the sort of thing that I think should be in this next package to be able to help get the economy back on its feet. Right now I’m told by small businesses that one of the biggest barriers to getting the economy going is the unemployment insurance provisions that were passed as part of the CARES Act back in March. This is what I’m hearing from small business owners all around Ohio --hat the additional unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act, which allows individuals at or below the average income to receive more in unemployment than they could get at work, is a disincentive to work.  

Of course, again, we needed to act to make sure people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own could get by while government at every level effectively pumped the brakes on the economy to better withstand the health crisis. In other words, people lost their jobs because the government said you can’t go to work. At the same time, it was not the best solution to provide a flat $600 increase in benefits to everybody, which is on top of the state unemployment insurance benefits. That’s what we did. That was the proposal here that was passed. That continues, by the way, until July 31.  

“Wage replacement for people making at or below the average income level would have been a good and generous approach. In other words saying if you make up to whatever the wage average is in your state - $52,000 a year, $48,000 a year, $58,000 a year - you get full wage replacement. But that’s not what this is. The $600 on top of the state benefit, which is on average $360 probably, puts you up near $1,000 a week. That is more than wage replacement, again, for people who make less than the average wage.  

“Regardless of how you feel about the $600 per week federal increase, we’re in a very different situation now than we were two months ago when we passed it. Back then, remember, we were encouraging people to stay home, not to go to work. Because that was the time period when we were shutting things down, we were saying stay-at-home orders. So it made much more sense to have an unemployment insurance system that actually would encourage people to stay home. Now we’re reopening all around the country. And again, small business people are telling me, “I’d like to get started again, but I can’t get the employees.”  

“Now, some say, well, you can go to the unemployment insurance office and say, I’ve got a job and then under the state’s rules they’ve got to tell these people you’re no longer on UI you got to go back to work. That's true. But, one, the unemployment insurance systems are overwhelmed and so they tell me that really is not something they have the capability of doing right now. They're overwhelmed. They’ve never seen these kind of numbers, ever. Second, a lot of employers don’t want to do it. And I get it. Their employees are making a lot more money in some cases on unemployment insurance than they can in their place of business. And they’re just hesitant to tell them, 'come back and make less money.' So I do think there is a role for us to help make that happen and do it in a smart way.  

“Now things are different in other respects, too. Not only is the economy starting to reopen around the country, but it's being done in a much more safe manner. Why? Because we have lot more testing. And that’s good. And I think we need even more by the way. Ohio has gone from about 3,700 tests per day a few weeks ago to over 10,000 tests a day now, soon to be over 20,000 tests a day in a couple weeks, they say. That’s good. We also have more PPE, personal protective gear, and that’s important, because if you reopen -- say you’re a factory -- you want to let people have the protective gear they need to keep them safe.  

“Also, we finally have some anti-viral medications coming online. Thank goodness. Remdesivir is the first one approved by the FDA. It's now in Ohio, my home state, and other states. People are using it, that's great. That gives people more comfort in being able to go back to work more safely. It’s time to start to transition from thinking about helping people get by and helping to encourage them to stay home through unemployment to thinking about how we can get people back into the workforce safely so we can get this economy, our small businesses, our hospitals, our colleges and universities back on track. 

“We should also want to help people get back to work because that’s good. For everybody. It is where most people get their health care is from work, from their employer. We want to get them back to that. It is where most people get their retirement, their 401(k). Not everybody offers it, but if you get one, you’re probably getting it from work. So that's good to get people back to work and back connected with their benefits.  

“It’s also good to get people returning to a safe workplace because that’s what most people want to do. They want to go back to work. They don’t want to stay on unemployment insurance. Yeah, it pays more for many Americans, but they’d rather be at work. The dignity and self-respect of work is real. It gives meaning to your life. So I think we need to take a hard look at this flat $600 increase in the unemployment benefits and ask ourselves if it's really in the best interest of those workers, of our businesses, and is it really the best system to have in place when we’re trying to get people back to work. 

“Again, this additional $600 benefit on top of the $360 average that states have means that, unless you’re making more than $50,000, or in some states $60,000 a year, it's more advantageous to be on unemployment than to go back to work. A recent study by the American Action Forum and the University of Chicago says that between 60 and 70 percent of individuals on unemployment are making more than they did in their prior job. 60 percent to 70 percent. Further, for the bottom 20 percent of wage earners, they say on average they are making double on unemployment insurance what they made in the workforce. So they say that for the bottom 20 percent of wage earners, on average, they’re making double on unemployment insurance.  

“Now, again, people needed the help. And they needed the direct payments. They needed the UI help. A lot of people lost their jobs, had no income coming in, just to put the food on the table, to be able to pay their rent, pay their car payment. Some people have used this UI even though it's more than they were making before to help with health care. That's important. But isn’t the best thing to do to get people back to work?  

“We need to continue to help people during this time who have lost their job, no question. Not every business is ready to reopen by the way. And the employees who had to be let go by some businesses certainly shouldn’t be punished for that. But at the same time we've got to ask ourselves whether there is a way we can combine that need with the need to actually get people back to work as we reopen. I think there is.  

“Specifically, I would propose that instead of keeping in place the additional $600 of the federal benefit for people on unemployment between now and July 31st, let’s shift some of those federal dollars to a back-to-work bonus, a program where you let people take some of that $600 with them to work. I propose $450 a week. Others have different numbers, probably. They think that’s too much. They think it’s too little. I chose $450 per week because that represents the amount that would be needed to make a person making the average minimum wage better off in the workforce than on unemployment.  

“When you take that, the minimum wages around the country on average, if you take $450 a week with you to work, that means that you would be making a little bit more in the workforce than you would be on unemployment. What’s more, this return-to-work bonus would put additional cash in the hands of individuals who lost their hands due to the health crisis, which should provide additional stimulus to the economy thats experiencing historic declines in consumer spending.  

“This incentive for people to get back to the workforce and get our economy running again is exactly the kind of policy we should all want. Instead, I will tell you, the $3 trillion House bill we talked about earlier, all it does is propose extending the $600 per month from the end of its expiration at the end of July into the beginning of next year. So we talked earlier about how the next package, whatever it is, ought to encourage the economy to get moving again, right? The House bill doesn’t do that in a lot of respects we talked about, but specifically on unemployment insurance, what it says is 'let’s continue this policy of making it harder for people to get back to work.' It will ensure that that 60 or 70 percent of workforce that that study showed are making more on unemployment insurance would be better off staying on unemployment rolls.  

“By the way, it’s also another $300 billion of taxpayer spending in this $3 trillion bill. And I don’t think it’s going to move our country forward. It’s going to make it even harder to get back on track. By the way, our back-to-work bonus also benefits taxpayers. So instead of $300 billion in additional funding that’s going to go into the House bill for unemployment insurance, if we assume that states would have trouble enforcing their UI laws, as we talked about earlier and that individuals would choose unemployment over returning to work, even if 25 percent, 25 percent of those who are on unemployment insurance today chose to take advantage of this $450 bonus -- and I think a lot will, I think a lot more will. But let's be conservative, let's say 25 percent take advantage of it, that will result in tens of billions of dollars of savings to the taxpayer.  

“Think about it. To the state, they won’t have the unemployment insurance benefit that they’re providing because the person will be work. That’s good. To the federal government, the $600 is reduced to $450. So that enables savings to the taxpayer. It enables people to get back to work. It allows our small businesses to be able to reopen. It’s a solution that I think Republicans and Democrats alike can get behind. Let’s continue to help the people who can’t return to the workplace through no fault of their own, but let’s also remember that the American people right now are looking to us here in Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis to put in place policies that will actually help move us forward in this crisis, get back to normalcy, get back to work safely, get our economy back on the historically strong footing that was here only a few months ago.  

“Back in February we had the 19th-straight month of wage increases over 3 percent, most of which going to lower and middle income workers. We had unemployment tied with the 50-year low. Unemployment was low then, it’s incredibly high now. So to get back to that, we’ve got to put smart policies in place and I believe the back-to-work bonus is exactly that. It won’t solve everything, but it will help get people back into jobs. And it will send a clear message that Congress is looking forward and providing a positive path forward for workers, for small businesses, and for taxpayers.”