Senate passes $1.9 trillion in relief: What it means for AFT members

Working people and their advocates are breathing a collective sigh of relief after the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan March 6. Once signed into law, this powerful piece of legislation will provide much-needed assistance to accelerate COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs and to get money to families struggling with job loss, food insecurity, the threat of homelessness and other challenges related to the pandemic. Funds could start flowing as early as next week.

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The bill is expected to cut child poverty in half, extend a lifeline to unemployed people, help families pay their bills and keep a roof over their heads, help states and local communities maintain public safety services, save jobs, and safely reopen schools.

“This plan is quite literally a lifeline for an economy that desperately needs one,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have lost more than half a million jobs in public education and more than 100,000 jobs in healthcare. This is what government looks like when it takes swift action to care for us all.”

The relief built into the American Rescue Plan is on its way because of hardworking advocates like union members and their coalition partners, who relentlessly called legislators, wrote petitions and led campaigns to articulate the need and provide help to the American people. The AFT was a leader in this massive movement that included other unions, education advocates, parents, champions of racial and socioeconomic equity, and so many others working to provide basic support to working families, schoolchildren and the communities where AFT members live and work.

The effort was an extension of an unprecedented election season that shifted the balance of the Senate toward Democrats, who consistently vote for working people. In fact, the American Rescue Plan is proof that elections matter: The bill passed 50-49 without one Republican vote in favor.

AFT members and leaders knew this sort of shift was possible. That’s why they spent countless hours with a coalition of others calling voters, writing letters to the editor, and holding news conferences, events and rallies—distanced and virtual—to elect legislators who vote to support working people, who never forget under-resourced communities, and who prioritize public education, public services and the public good.

And now it has paid off.

“One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, families, communities, cities and towns are still reeling from one of the greatest crises our country has ever faced,” says Weingarten. “Schools are attempting to reopen with new safety precautions; businesses are fighting to stay afloat with adjustments to our new normal; families are still struggling with rent and groceries—all while we are working to get as many vaccine shots in arms as quickly as humanly possible.

“Across this country, as we rebuild and recover, people need support. This bill puts resources directly into our cities and towns so the critical services that have carried us through this pandemic can continue to operate and the American people can get back on a path toward recovery. This relief package will ensure that families—no matter our color, background or ZIP code—have the vaccines, wages and financial support we need to pull through this pandemic together, and that school buildings have the resources they need to reopen for in-person learning safely and equitably.”

Among the measures in the bill are the following:

  • $170 billion to help schools and colleges open safely and address the academic, social-emotional and mental health needs of our nation's students, including:
    • $126 billion to public K-12 schools, including funding specifically to address learning recovery; and
    • $40 billion to higher education institutions, with at least 50 percent required to be allocated to emergency financial aid to students.
  • $350 billion to state and local governments to help cash-strapped state, local and town operations.
  • $1,400 in direct payments to the vast majority of Americans.
  • $300 per week in enhanced unemployment insurance benefits through Sept. 6, 2021, coupled with tax relief ensuring that for most recipients, up to $10,200 is not subject to federal income taxes.
  • $14 billion to speed vaccine distribution and save lives. 
  • $49 billion for COVID-19 testing, tracing and research. 
  • $24 billion for community health centers, rural healthcare providers and a public health workforce. 
  • $140 million to support mental health and decrease burnout of healthcare professionals. 
  • Lower health insurance premiums for millions who buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. 
  • 100 percent subsidies for continuation of job-based health coverage (COBRA) for those who have lost employer-sponsored healthcare.
  • $40 billion to stabilize child care and the child care workforce.
  • $7.1 billion in E-Rate funding to expand broadband access. 
  • $100 million for emergency assistance for rural housing. 
  • Stabilization funding for distressed multi-employer pensions, and improvements to single-employer pension plans. 
  • Extended credits to public sector employers who voluntarily offer emergency paid sick leave and family leave benefits. 
  • Expanded and improved child tax credit and earned income tax credit. 

Before the bill is final, the House of Representatives must pass the Senate version of the bill, after which it would go to the president for his signature.

[AFT Communications staff]