WASHINGTON — Billions of dollars, including $1,200 checks for workers, appear to be headed for Hawaii as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package agreed to Wednesday by leaders in the U.S. Senate.

A vote, however, is pending as senators continue debating details over jobless benefits.

If the Senate passes the legislation, the spending deal could be approved by the House of Representatives as soon as Thursday and signed into law by President Trump shortly thereafter.

It is the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history while at the same time helping states cope with a growing pandemic that already has killed almost 21,000 people worldwide.

“This is an absolutely necessary bill,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in an interview with Civil Beat. “This is not a time for celebration, but this bill will provide help for Hawaii.”

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
Sen. Brian Schatz says the stimulus deal is the largest in U.S. history, but he still doesn’t think it’s enough. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Schatz echoed the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who announced details of the agreement in a letter to his colleagues after several days of tense negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Democrats had a number of criticisms of the GOP’s initial draft, which included $500 billion for industry with little in the way of oversight.

The new bill addresses those concerns while at the same time greatly extending unemployment insurance for all workers, including freelancers and others in the so-called gig economy.

While the text of the bill has yet to be released, some details have trickled out, including in Schumer’s “Dear Colleague” letter and media reports.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Direct payments of $1,200 to U.S. workers earning up to $75,000. Anyone making more than that, up to $99,000, will also be eligible, although the amount will be less. Families can also receive an additional $500 per child.
  • Expanded unemployment benefits that increase the maximum by $600 per week and extend the eligibility period from three to four months. Self-employed workers and independent contractors would also be eligible under this plan, which Schumer described as “unemployment benefits on steroids.”
  • $377 billion in small business loans that Schatz said will subsidize employers of  500 or fewer people as long as they keep them on the payroll.
  • $150 billion for state, local and tribal governments through a coronavirus relief fund and $30 billion in financial assistance through a disaster relief fund.
  • $130 billion for hospitals.
  • $500 billion in loans for industries and corporations, including $25 billion for airlines and $17 billion for companies that are considered critical to national security.
  • A prohibition on businesses controlled by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, executive branch department heads and members of Congress from receiving loans or investments through the Treasury Department’s programs.
  • Creation of an inspector general and “Pandemic Response Accountability Committee” to keep tabs on loans and other expenditures of taxpayer dollars.

At this point it’s still unclear exactly how much money might be headed to Hawaii to bolster the economy and help medical workers fight COVID-19.

Schatz said the allocations for state and local governments will be on a per capita basis, and that his office will work closely with officials, business leaders and nonprofit organizations to help them take advantage of the stimulus and its various loan programs.

The direct payments, small business loan incentives and expanded unemployment benefits, Schatz said, will hopefully blunt what is expected to be a devastating hit to the islands’ economy, which relies heavily on tourism and the service industry.

“The idea here is that it’s the government that is, by necessity, telling everybody to stay home, and we have to make people whole so that they can make their rent, they can buy their groceries and they can pay their mortgage, they can pay their utilities” Schatz said.

“I don’t want to overstate the benefits of this bill. There’s no doubt that this is not enough. But it is a fact that significant help is on the way.”

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