The US government’s first economic relief bill to cope with the coronavirus shutdown was a stopgap measure. With employment in a free fall and businesses shutting down across the country, Americans needed money in their pockets as fast as possible. Without the time to figure out the optimal policy, the government turned to an existing system that was in place and ready to go: unemployment insurance. Millions of newly unemployed Americans now use these benefits as an economic lifeline.
There were many problems with this approach -- for example, the unemployment-insurance system has been swamped, which will delay the day when people start getting money. But the biggest problem is that allowing millions to lose their jobs, even if they get checks in the short term, sets the economy up for a depression after the shutdowns end.
Consider two workers. The first gets fired from her job because of shutdowns and lives on unemployment benefits for three months. Afterward, she has to look for a new job. That will take time and effort, delaying the day that she gets back to being productive. The uncertainty created by that job search will also make her less likely to spend money at stores or restaurants. That lack of spending will crimp demand, causing businesses to avoid hiring, which means higher unemployment, more difficult job searches for everyone, more uncertainty and even less consumer spending. Result: a recession or even a depression that lasts for years.
But consider the second worker, who keeps her job during shutdown. Instead of using unemployment insurance, her company pays her to stay home for a few months. When shutdowns end, she goes right back to work on Day 1. And the knowledge that she’ll be able to go back to work and keep her old paycheck makes her more likely to spend; that raises demand, meaning that other workers will also be able to get jobs right away and so on. Result: an economy that bounces back quickly.
It’s obviously in the country’s interest to make sure that there are as many workers of the second type as possible. Existing employer-employee relationships may be intangible but they’re highly valuable economic assets that need to be preserved. Unfortunately, these relationships are evaporating at an incredible rate; by some estimates, the unemployment rate is already about 13 percent, higher than it ever was in the Great Recession. Young workers are being hit especially hard.
That bleeding must be stanched. Now that the first stimulus has bought the government a couple weeks of breathing room, the next relief bill needs to come very soon, and it needs to focus overwhelmingly on payroll maintenance instead of income maintenance.
The first relief bill did have one big program dedicated to keeping people in their jobs -- the Paycheck Protection Program. This consists of loans to small and medium-sized businesses which are forgiven -- in other words, which turn from loans into grants -- if the businesses keep workers on payroll. Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed a willingness to scale the program up, and the Federal Reserve is helping facilitate the program by accepting the loans as collateral from banks. The Treasury Department has tweaked the program’s rules to force companies that use the loans to spend 75 percent of the money on payroll. That will make it much harder to abuse the system.
This is all very good, but it leaves out large employers. Americans may be wary of government handouts to big corporations, but conceptually there’s no difference between a Wal-Mart employee and a server at a local independent restaurant when it comes to sustaining the economy. The first relief bill already established a program to lend hundreds of billions of dollars to large companies. It would be relatively easy to retroactively convert these into grants conditioned on payroll maintenance.
A second important change is to retroactively alter the emergency unemployment-insurance system to turn it into a payroll-maintenance program. Austria allows employers to temporarily cut its workers’ hours by as much as 90 percent, with the government making up the lost wages. The Department of Labor has already taken a step in this direction by allowing workers to claim some unemployment benefits if their hours are cut by up to 60 percent.
In the next relief bill, Congress should take this idea to its logical conclusion. Companies that don’t benefit from forgivable payroll-protection loans should get a small stipend from the government for keeping workers on staff even with zero hours. These workers would be able to collect unemployment benefits until their hours are restored. That would be closer to Denmark’s approach.
An even better approach would be for the government to make these programs retroactive, allowing employers to rehire recently fired workers and receive either a forgivable loan or a payroll-maintenance stipend. Recently severed economic relationships can be restored even as workers stay home and collect government checks.
The best outcome for the coronavirus shutdowns is for the economy to simply turn off and then turn back on again once the pandemic has passed, avoiding a protracted depression. Payroll maintenance is the best way to do that. From now on, this should be the government’s top priority.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.