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State_and_regional
Senate overcomes Sasse speed bump, passes $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate late Wednesday passed a record $2 trillion coronavirus-related stimulus package with money for American workers and businesses, overcoming a daylong effort by U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska to cap the bill’s boost in jobless benefits.

The bill passed unanimously, 96-0. Sasse voted against last week’s coronavirus relief package.

The 883-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in American history, roughly half the size of the annual $4 trillion federal budget. It earmarks aid for workers, businesses and the nation’s health care system, all of which are coping with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate bill, which President Donald Trump has said he would sign if the House passes it Friday, intends to blunt the effects of a sputtering economy and to help a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that has killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. U.S. deaths from the disease crested 1,000 on Wednesday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that the bill could help keep the American economy afloat for about three months but that he hopes it won’t have to do so.

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The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

It would expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers stay home.

And it would send hospitals fighting the disease an estimated $130 billion and set aside another $45 billion for state and local government and community services.

Trump had urged quick passage but said, “I don’t think it’s going to end up being such a rough patch.” Once the country is past the pandemic, he said, the economy will soar “like a rocket ship.”

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among top congressional leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure is not an option, nor is starting over, which permitted both sides to include their priorities.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, where a deal has been reached on a coronavirus bill. The 2 trillion dollar stimulus bill is expected to be voted on in the Senate Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The vote on the package, which had been expected by midafternoon Wednesday, was delayed until 10:30 p.m. by Sasse and a handful of fellow Republican senators, Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida.

They had objected to the way the bill handled a proposed increase in unemployment benefits. At issue, Sasse and the others said, was the addition of $600 a week in federal money on top of state unemployment benefits, regardless of the person’s previous earnings.

Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment insurance benefits, plus the $600 per week, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Sasse’s concern, he told The World-Herald, was that some people could make more money on unemployment than by working at a grocery store, gas station or pharmacy, even in-home health care. So, in theory, a worker, with help from a cooperative employer, might choose unemployment over a job.

That, the GOP foursome argued, risked leaving critical sectors of the economy with too few workers and might force employers to pay more to fill critical jobs during a crisis that’s already hurting many businesses’ bottom lines.

Sasse, in a floor speech, said the bill creates a “perverse incentive” for workers to “stay on the sidelines” and wait to seek work.

He had told The World-Herald: “We absolutely need to help folks who need it, but we absolutely cannot gut our supply chains by increasing unemployment.”

The Nebraska Republican’s stance drew criticism from Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, who said businesses stand to benefit more from the stimulus package than workers.

“I think it’s disgusting that Sen. Sasse thinks that workers would rather sit at home than have the dignity of their job,” Kleeb said Wednesday.

Sasse’s amendment to cap unemployment benefits at 100% of whatever a person made when last working received 48 votes, short of the 60 needed.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., arguing against the amendment, said the Trump administration’s Department of Labor had said too many states would be unable to make a determination of what people were paid and adjust their unemployment benefits.

“The way you want to calculate it cannot be done,” Durbin said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday evening, said the country could not wait for a perfect bill.

“There is nothing in this bill that will damage us more than our inability to act,” Rubio said.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., center, accompanied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., right, and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus relief bill on Wednesday. The senators discussed what they are calling a "drafting error" in the $2 trillion stimulus bill.

Businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospitals and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that keep employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paychecks up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

A companion appropriations package ballooned, too, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to $330 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

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The biggest objections other than Sasse’s came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other. Cuomo said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Democrats assured him and others that a fourth coronavirus bill will follow this spring and signaled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish. Wednesday’s bill is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics called political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps.

World-Herald staff writer Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Health
'Don't expect to be in church for Easter': Ricketts says restrictions will remain in place

LINCOLN — Don’t expect things to be back to normal by Easter, especially in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday.

The Republican governor, at his daily coronavirus briefing, said restrictions imposed in Douglas, Lancaster and five other counties will extend several days beyond Easter, April 12, and that the spread of the virus will dictate when Nebraska officials ease restrictions there and elsewhere.

That’s all despite President Donald Trump’s expressed desire to have churches “packed again” and the country back open for business by Easter.

“Don’t expect to be in church for Easter,” Ricketts said.

He spoke as the number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska continued to climb, and tighter restrictions on social distancing were being prepared for three more counties.

Because community spread cases of coronavirus have now been identified in Lancaster, Dodge and Saunders Counties, those counties are now scheduled to join Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties under state-imposed directed health measures.

Those measures include a mandatory 10-person limit on crowd sizes, as well as the closing of bars, in-house dining at restaurants and elective surgeries. Churches also have suspended services. The purpose, the governor said, is to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus and make more hospital rooms available in the event of a surge in patients.

Ricketts said there was no way to predict exactly when things could return to normal but said Nebraskans should be prepared for restrictions to last at least eight weeks. In the case of the Omaha area, the directed health measures are to be in effect until at least April 30, when they will be reviewed; in the case of Lancaster, Saunders and Dodge Counties, those restrictions extend until at least May 7.

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On related issues:

  • The governor joined Weysan Dun of the Nebraska Red Cross in urging Nebraskans to donate blood. The Red Cross is critically short of its blood supplies because 150 blood drives have been canceled in the state due to the pandemic, which led to 4,000 fewer donations than expected. Ricketts said that his wife, first lady Susanne Shore, has already donated blood and that he plans to donate during a March 31 blood drive scheduled for state workers in Lincoln. Dun said the Red Cross has implemented new safety measures so blood drives can resume.
  • Ricketts said the state has no plans to provide an early release of any inmates, despite concerns about a coronavirus outbreak in the state’s overcrowded prisons. He said he didn’t think Nebraskans would support that. “(Inmates are) in prison for a reason,” Ricketts said. Neighboring Iowa is among the states that have allowed the release of some inmates who face a high risk of contracting the virus due to age or medical conditions. Some county jails in Iowa are also ticketing some lawbreakers instead of taking them to jail. The ACLU of Nebraska is among the groups in this state that have been urging the “compassionate release” of some elderly and ill inmates.
  • Ricketts said trying to expand Medicaid immediately to give 90,000 more Nebraskans health care would actually delay implementation of the expansion, now scheduled for Oct. 1. That, he said, is because the state would have to amend and refile its waiver application to the federal government. Ricketts, who opposed Medicaid expansion, said expanding Medicaid is a bigger change that most people think, because it requires lining up new physicians and installing new software.
  • The governor said county health departments can supersede the state in ordering coronavirus restrictions, as Douglas County has with hair salons and related businesses. Ricketts said he does not wish to close businesses, including those where it’s necessary for workers to be within 6 feet of a customer. He urged such business to use common sense. The Douglas County Health Department has ordered hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors and similar businesses to close, because they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from customers.
  • Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry, the firm operating the huge chicken-processing plant in Fremont that supplies Costco warehouses, said the 1,000 workers there have been supportive of efforts to keep working to maintain the flow of food. Extra cleaning and other precautions have been taken, Kolterman said, and absenteeism has remained normal so far.
  • The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is joining 32 other state attorneys general in warning Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and others to rigorously monitor price gouging practices by online sellers. Price gouging online is just as illegal as it is for brick-and-mortar stores, Ricketts said. Examples include inflated prices for hand sanitizer and face masks, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said.
  • Ricketts urged Congress to provide future aid to the states via block grants, because state and local officials have a better idea of how to spend such money.

World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Health
'It's terrifying': Nebraska unemployment claims rising as more workers laid off due to coronavirus

LINCOLN — Keith Binder felt a little bit of relief when he lost his job last week.

It ended more than a week of worrying about how long the spread of the coronavirus would allow him to keep working as a bartender at Beercade in Benson.

The tipping point turned out to be Gov. Pete Ricketts’ directive to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The governor’s call was in line with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

Beercade closed the next day, and Binder, 37, joined thousands of Nebraskans who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut because of economic havoc wreaked by the potentially deadly virus. Restaurants, bars, hotels, retail, travel, gyms and events-related businesses have been hit especially hard.

“It’s terrifying,” Binder said. “I’m a bartender. I don’t have a vast amount of savings.”

It will take time to see the full scope of the job losses. Initial unemployment claims in Nebraska jumped to 799 as of March 14, up 33% from the previous week. State officials will not release last week’s initial claims numbers until Thursday, in keeping with a federal request for delay.

But the Nebraska Department of Labor saw a “large surge” in claims last week, according to State Labor Commissioner John Albin.

Nationally, the Bank of America predicted that 3 million people will have filed new claims for unemployment benefits by this week because of economic turmoil related to the coronavirus.

To help laid-off workers and slow the virus’ spread, Ricketts has waived some of the usual requirements for unemployment benefits. Workers now can get benefits if they are unpaid because of the coronavirus, including time spent in quarantine because of potential exposure.

Workers do not have to take an unpaid week, meaning benefits can start with the week they apply, and they are not required to search for work. Employers are not being charged for benefits paid to people whose unemployment is tied to the coronavirus.

The governor’s executive order applies to claims filed from March 22 through May 2. But Labor Department spokeswoman Grace Johnson said the department will accommodate coronavirus-related claims filed earlier. She said those claims will be identified through the process of determining eligibility.

“We understand this is a time of uncertainty for all Nebraskans, and we are here to support workers and employers as they navigate this challenging situation,” Albin said.

Enhanced unemployment benefits are part of the $2 trillion stimulus package being considered by Congress. Details were not immediately available.

Binder filed his first claim for unemployment benefits last week. But he’s worried about how he will pay his rent and other bills. He shares an apartment with other bartenders, so all are out of work. He does commercial photography on the side, but that business has dried up as well.

Claims processing typically takes about 21 days, and workers are paid half of their weekly earnings, up to $440 a week.

“I’m not holding out much hope it’s going to help people as much as it could,” Binder said. “I wasn’t struggling when I was working, but this isn’t something that is going away anytime soon.”

Derek Dillon, 31, got in a few more days of work before his job ended last week at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Omaha.

Until Thursday, he had been the creative director at the movie theater, choosing the movies that would run and doing marketing for the theater. The business closed March 16 after the 10-person directive came out. He stayed on to help make sure the theater would be ready to go when it could open again.

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“It was a dream job. I’m a huge lover of movies,” he said. “Now I’m in the same boat with a ton of other people. I’m just grateful to have a roof over my head and food on the table for now.”

Dillon started exploring part-time jobs immediately but held off filing an unemployment claim to make sure he qualified for the coronavirus waivers.

The number of workers filing claims overwhelmed the state unemployment website at times Monday, and Ricketts apologized because the site had not been updated to account for the waivers. He said fixes had been made by Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, calls inundated the unemployment claim center phone banks, leading to long wait times and disconnections.

Albin said the Labor Department has nearly doubled its claims processing staff, going from 34 to 66 workers to handle the surge. Officials said staff have been reassigned and workers are putting in more overtime to try to meet the demand.

Along with traditional unemployment, the department offers a new program to help people whose hours have been cut. The Short-Time Compensation program allows employers to avoid layoffs by reducing hours between 10% and 60% across the board. The program pays prorated benefits to employees for the lost hours.

Both Binder and Dillon said they hope to go back to the jobs they had, once crowds can gather again at places like bars and theaters.

But both said they may have to move on, depending on how long restrictions related to the virus continue and how quickly businesses bounce back. While some sectors of the economy are hurting, other employers are looking to hire.

Grocery stores, online retailers and big box stores are among the businesses searching for workers. Some sectors, such as health care and corrections, were struggling to fill vacancies earlier and are still looking.

“I would rather continue at Alamo,” Dillon said. “But you really have to try to take care of yourself.”

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Local
Omaha metro area's population will soon hit 1 million landmark

The Omaha metropolitan area’s population continues to grow at its measured pace as the 1 million milestone gets ever closer.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest population estimates put the metro area’s total at 949,442 as of July 2019.

That represents an increase of 8,472 people since 2018 and a growth rate of nine-tenths of 1%. Both figures are down slightly from what the metro area has experienced in recent years.

Still, the figures are consistent with the Omaha area’s growth for the decade, said David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

At that rate, the metro area is on pace to hit 1 million people in 2025, Drozd said.

The new figures are just the latest interim estimates between the full 10-year census counts.

The full census is underway right now, and Nebraska continues to have a strong response rate.

As of Tuesday, 32.5% of Nebraska households had responded to the census, which now ranks second nationally behind Wisconsin, according to the Census Bureau.

All households should have received their official census invitation by now, and an initial reminder letter also has gone out.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau has suspended field operations until April 1. In late May, census takers are due to visit homes who have not responded, although the bureau says it will adjust operations as needed.


National landmarks of Nebraska

Photos: National landmarks of Nebraska