On July 15, Oregon Food Bank joined U.S. Senator Ron Wyden in a call for Congress to pass urgent relief for families and communities hard-hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
The following remarks were delivered by Susannah Morgan, CEO of Oregon Food Bank, on behalf of the one-in-five Oregonians facing income loss and food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19. Remarks by Senator Wyden follow. (Both sets of remarks are presented as prepared for delivery.)
Susannah Morgan: Good Morning. My name is Susannah Morgan, and I’m the CEO of Oregon Food Bank.
This is a critical moment for Oregon and our nation. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 are spiking in Oregon, Washington and around the country. The death toll continues to rise. And one-in-five Oregonians are out of work in the pandemic’s wake.
It breaks my heart to report that we’ve seen food insecurity double in Oregon since March. Requests for emergency food assistance have risen dramatically across our 1,400 pantries and meal sites. Many sites have served as many community members in a month as they usually see in an entire year. And there is no end in sight.
Our highest priority – always and right now especially – must be to care for one another. On behalf of the entire Oregon Food Bank Network, I call on Congress to take immediate action to address the greatest hunger crisis of my lifetime. Now is the time for bold leadership to ensure all Oregonians can put food on the table — to pass a comprehensive relief package that will ensure our communities can emerge stronger on the other side of this pandemic.
First, we must extend Unemployment Insurance. This should be a no-brainer. Until the pandemic is conquered and our economy recovers, families will need this critical help to put food on the table.
Equally important is to protect and strengthen SNAP — formerly known as ‘food stamps’. Our neighbors are facing double jeopardy – no income from jobs AND rising food prices. This means that current SNAP benefits simply aren’t enough to get families through the month. Congress can fix this by increasing SNAP food benefits by 15% and extending the emergency measures that are set to expire soon.
We also need to extend the Pandemic EBT program, which provides funds for food for families who kids would have received free or reduced priced meals at school. As a mom of two school-aged kids myself, I can tell you from personal experience that if kids don’t eat, they can’t learn – and disruptions in school patterns are already making education really challenging.
It is vital that Congress stop excluding Oregonians from these and other safety net initiatives. Many of our neighbors have been excluded from prior aid packages — immigrants and refugees, many of whom are essential to our food system, have been cut out. In the middle of a pandemic, everyone should be able to access food or healthcare assistance without fear. Including all taxpayers and halting the ‘Public Charge’ rule are important first steps, and elected leaders can go even further by establishing an Emergency Assistance Fund to ensure states can provide support for those who can’t otherwise access our safety net.
Oregonians need this help, and we need it now. This is particularly true for our neighbors long stalked by poverty and now disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 – our neighbors who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color.
I know that my friend, Senator Ron Wyden, understands this – he has long been a champion of policies that fight hunger and its root causes. But we need the rest of Congress to stand with Senator Wyden. Hunger’s reach is widening and deepening with each passing day. Our communities cannot wait another day for relief.
Thank you, Senator Wyden, for being here today. And thank to our other guests, Karlee Hudgens, and Lloyd Jones, who will share about the realities of this pandemic for Oregon’s families. Karlee and Lloyd, we are immensely grateful you have joined us today to speak truth to power.
With that, it is my pleasure to introduce the Senior Senator from Oregon, and my friend, Ron Wyden.
Senator Ron Wyden: Thanks, Susannah.
The COVID-19 public health crisis has touched off an economic tsunami in Oregon and nationwide.
And I know full well, any economic tsunami slams the shores of the Oregon Food Bank hard.
So thank you for all that you and your team are doing round-the-clock to help Oregonians weather this once-in-a-lifetime storm.
I’m here this morning to sound the alarm about another storm fast approaching on the horizon.
In about two weeks, supercharged unemployment benefits will expire and more than 20 million families will see their incomes cut by up to 70 percent.
This would be an absolute catastrophe for families and our economy in Oregon and throughout the country.
I have a proposal to extend these benefits, which have kept families afloat. But Republicans would allow them to expire.
Needless to say, now is not the time to slash the lifeline that’s helped millions of Americans stay in their homes, keep the lights on, and put food on their tables.
Donald Trump has given up on fighting the virus and left states to fend for themselves. Cases are exploding in Arizona, Texas, Florida. In Oregon, we’ve also seen a troubling uptick in cases and the state is rightly taking action to protect public health.
The unemployment rate is still higher than it’s been since the Great Depression. An estimated 243,000 Oregonians are out of work.
That includes tens of thousands still waiting for their claims to even be processed by the state Employment Department because of the state agency’s Bronze Age computer systems that it uses to administer the program. For those Oregonians, the supercharged benefits I was able to secure in the initial COVID-19 package have provided cold comfort.
Oregonians sleeping in their car because they can’t get their benefits is unacceptable. They’re not satisfied. And neither am I.
That’s why I’ve directed my Senate staff to help wherever possible to unsnarl state bureaucracy. And in an unprecedented request, I said it was time for new leadership at the state Employment Department to get these benefits out.
For any Oregonian trying to make ends meet and justifiably frustrated about securing their benefits to pay their rent and buy groceries, I fully recognize improvement can’t happen soon enough.
I want to make clear I’m not going to stop fighting for any Oregonian who’s been thrown out of work through no fault of their own.
And, state and local governments are shedding jobs at an alarming rate.
Now is not the time to pretend the pandemic is over and take our foot off the gas. Millions of American families will experience unnecessary financial pain if supercharged unemployment benefits are allowed to expire.
Even if millions of Americans go back to work, if millions of Americans lose their supercharged benefits and are abruptly unable to pay their bills, the economy will get worse, not better.
Things will get worse and I fear that families will find themselves in increasingly dire straits.
As I mentioned, I have made a proposal with Senate leadership that would continue the $600 plus-up in benefits based on the state of the economy. As a state’s unemployment rate falls, the boost in benefits would fall with it.
I’m proposing that we continue the $600 boost until a state’s unemployment rate falls below 11%. The federal boost would fall to $500 at 10% unemployment, $400 at 9%, $300 at 8%, $200 at 7%, and $100 at 6%. This ensures that increased benefits won’t disappear overnight.
The 13-week extension of benefits would continue through March 2021.
If a state’s unemployment rate exceeds 8.5%, 52 weeks of additional benefits would be available, down to 26 weeks of additional benefits at 6.5%.
This approach would ensure workers and the economy are supported as this crisis continues.
If the economy “reopens” with no large events, restaurants operating at 25 percent capacity, and many businesses remaining shuttered, unemployment will remain at historically high levels for months, if not years, to come.
Workers will not be able to just go back to the jobs they once had, as much as we wish they could. And whether these workers can keep food on the table shouldn’t depend on Republicans short-term political calculations.
This proposal is just one piece that Democrats are pushing for with regard to unemployment insurance. I am also working on proposals to expand work sharing programs, provide benefits for students, and strengthen the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, among others.
This proposal is one part of the agenda I’ll be pushing on unemployment.
I’ll also be working on Workshare; making sure students have access to unemployment benefits; and continuing the modernization of the unemployment law for gig workers, the self-employed, independent contractors and others that I began with my first bill.
Now, you’ll hear from Karlee, who can explain just how important these benefits are — and why it’s urgent business for Congress to extend them.
Karlee Hudgens: My family was hit extremely hard by Covid19 and have faced financial struggle since the beginning of the pandemic. We now fear for our future once again. On March 4th we vacated our residency of three years after putting in our thirty day notice, eleven days later I was laid off from my job. Without income our temporary location was not an option for living and we had to live in our van. After several months of waiting for unemployment I reached out to KATU news station. Once our story was covered unemployment was responsive and we received benefits a couple weeks later. With the back pay from unemployment I purchased an rv and parked it on a lot. We conquered that unfortunate event. Now that we have stabilized our housing a new crisis emerges. The very real possibility that we will lose our lot space for the rv without the extra 600 from unemployment.
Today 7/17/20 my boss informed me of the possibility of the hospitality industry closing again, putting me out of a job, further reducing my income. Yesterday I was going to be living on 700 from unemployment plus 600 from my current job, today I realized i might be living on unemployment solely. 700.00 a month from unemployment, my lot space is 800.00 a month.
Oregonians need “The American Workforce Act” to become prosperous as a society once again. Without the (PEUC) being extended Americans will face further economic decline. Numerous Americans are depending on the PEUC for survival, removing this safety net would be an act against our economic rights. We will not have an adequate standard of living.