Just as Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States, the dual economic and health crises hitting the country are at their zenith: 400,000 Americans have lost their lives to Covid-19, and 18 million more are on unemployment rolls.
It's little wonder, then, that Biden plans to spend his first 100 days fixing the botched rollout of the vaccine and repairing the U.S. economy--both welcome goals among the millions of small businesses still fighting for survival.
Forty-eight percent of small businesses in the latest, mid-December poll from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said their fiscal health was average or poor. At least 80 percent of those surveyed were concerned about Covid-19's impact on the economy. An estimated four million small businesses closed their doors in 2020, according to Ray Greenhill, president and founder of Oxxford Information Technology, an information services firm in Hagaman, New York, which tracks about 32 million businesses.
Indeed, Biden, in a January 14 address from Wilmington, Delaware, acknowledged the difficulty facing small business: "It's not hard to see that we're in the middle of a once-in- several-generations economic crisis with a once-in-several-generations public health crisis. The crises of deep human suffering are in plain sight," he said.
He went on to outline his "American Rescue Plan," a new $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, which includes $440 billion for communities and small businesses. The proposal would include direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, an expansion and extension of unemployment benefits, and renewed aid to state and local governments.
Specific details--for instance, the portion of that $440 billion that gets earmarked for small businesses versus communities--remain unclear. Biden is expected to more formally present his plan before a joint session of Congress next month. He'll also offer his plan for immigration legislation, providing a pathway to citizenship for millions of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a designation that allows a small population of undocumented people to legally work for American companies.
In the meantime, he did offer some highlights on his relief bill. In particular, Biden would create a $15 billion grant program to help more than a million of the hardest hit businesses, as well as a plan to leverage $35 billion in government assistance into $175 billion in small business lending and investment. The funds, Biden said, would get invested in successful state, local, tribal, and nonprofit small business financing programs, which would then provide low-interest loans and venture capital for entrepreneurs.
He also wants to fully subsidize enhanced paid leave benefits for all employers through September 30, 2021. Biden's plan eliminates an earlier exemption for businesses with more than 500 or fewer than 50 employees. Bigger companies were not required to provide leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, because it was assumed that larger companies already offer paid leave and they didn't need any federal tax dollar subsidies.
Biden's plan also contains some controversial conditions--including calls for employers to provide hazard pay or even back hazard pay to essential workers. He'd also require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a new Covid-19 protection standard that covers a broad set of workers, which may include those not typically covered by the agency. While all employers must provide a safe work environment, employers with 10 or fewer employees and businesses in certain industries may be exempt from keeping OSHA injury and illness records. It's not clear what exactly Biden has in mind in terms of OSHA's new protection standard, but it could mean added paperwork hurdles for certain employers.
And he'd raise the federal minimum wage standard to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25 hourly wage floor. On the campaign trail, Biden called for gradually boosting the minimum wage to $15 over time; his latest proposal does not note a timeline for raising it. Biden called for an end to the tipped minimum wage, too, but his plan so far doesn't explain what if anything would replace it.
These new costs, regulations, and restrictions could undermine a recovery, warns Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Vienna, Virginia. "Dramatically increasing the minimum wage and imposing other costs would disproportionately burden small businesses," said Kerrigan in a statement.
Of course, passage of Biden's aid plan, which includes billions in state and local government aid--a key sticking point for Republicans in previous relief negotiations--is hardly assured. While Democrats control both the House and the Senate, their majorities in both chambers are slim. In the Senate, the makeup is 50-50, with incoming Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker. Budget bills--or so-called continuing-resolution bills--need just a simple majority for passage. Other legislation--the kind required to pass a minimum wage hike, for instance--may require a filibuster-proof majority, or 60 votes in the Senate, to pass.
Persuading Republicans to underwrite Biden's plans that aren't strictly coronavirus-related will be tough for a variety of reasons. One is the growing deficit, says Ronil Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University. "At some point people will pay attention to the deficit and debt. The financial markets have ignored it so far, but those attitudes can change suddenly."
Biden specifically proposes using deficit spending to fund the stimulus package, which he also justifies as being a better alternative than doing too little. "A growing number of top economists have shown that even our debt situation will be more stable, not less stable, if we seize this moment with vision and purpose," Biden said in the January 14 speech.
In the early days of the Biden administration, lawmakers are also expected to be busy with a second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. And they may chafe at Biden's plans to extinguish a number of Trump-era executive orders, as well as launch a series of new actions, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, and issuing a mask mandate for federal agencies and contractors.
But the will of lawmakers to improve vaccine production and distribution--which of course would be a boost to business--is strong, says Dean Baker, a senior economist at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He notes that Biden's plan to get 100 million vaccines out to Americans in his first 100 days is popular. Plus, he adds: "We're in a different world after the coup attempt. ...The idea for the 100 days is to do stuff while you can; while you have political momentum." Even so, if all Biden does is stamp out the coronavirus, it'll be a job well done.