Biden signs executive orders to boost food benefits, workers' rights as part of Covid relief push

Key Points
  • President Biden signed two more executive orders that aim to reduce hunger in the U.S. and promote federal workers' rights during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Biden has taken several actions during his first days as president both to control the virus and offer economic relief.
  • The White House is pushing for a $1.9 trillion relief package in Congress and says the executive actions cannot replace a comprehensive congressional response.
President Biden signs executive orders to address economic crisis

President Joe Biden signed two executive orders Friday designed to reduce hunger and bolster workers' rights during the coronavirus pandemic, as his administration pushes Congress to pass another sweeping coronavirus relief package.

One White House measure urges the federal government to offer any relief it can through "existing authority," National Economic Council Director Brian Deese told reporters Thursday night. The other calls for "empowering federal workers and contractors."

The orders set out multiple tools to offer aid during the pandemic, while Biden tries to nudge his $1.9 trillion proposal through Congress.

  • Biden asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider allowing states to expand access to enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits as the country confronts a hunger crisis unseen in decades.
  • The USDA will also examine increasing by 15% the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, which replaces meals for low-income children who would otherwise get food at school.
  • The president urged the Treasury Department to adopt tools to more efficiently deliver the direct payments approved by Congress to eligible people. The White House said up to 8 million people did not receive the first $1,200 stimulus check passed in March.
  • Biden asked the Labor Department to set out rules clarifying that workers have the right to turn down work that risks their health during the pandemic — without losing eligibility for jobless benefits.
  • The president asked his administration to prepare a potential executive order, which he aims to sign in his first 100 days in office, that would require federal contractors to offer a $15 per hour minimum wage and emergency paid leave.
  • Biden revoked executive orders issued by former President Donald Trump that the White House said damaged workers' collective bargaining power, and get rid of a rule that limited job protections for civil servants.
  • He called on agencies to review which federal workers make fewer than $15 per hour.

Before signing the orders Friday, Biden said the country needs to "tackle the growing hunger crisis." He added that "no one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their own health, or the health of their loved ones."

Biden stressed that he wants Congress to "act now" to provide broader relief than his administration can alone.

"We're in a national emergency. We need to act like we're in a national emergency," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's plans to respond to the economic crisis as Vice President Kamala Harris listens during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response event in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, January 22, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The executive actions fit into Biden's early push to curb the outbreak and mitigate its damage to the economy. He signed a series of orders Thursday designed to promote mask wearing and streamline production of Covid vaccines and protective equipment, among other goals.

His first-day actions Wednesday included extensions of a federal eviction moratorium through March, and a pause on federal student loan payments and interest accumulation through September. Both pandemic relief measures would have expired at the end of the month.

Biden has moved to boost the economy through executive orders while he tries to get the $1.9 trillion aid package passed by Congress. Republicans have started to express doubts about backing another relief bill after Congress approved $900 billion legislation last month.

Deese: White House to discuss need for stimulus with senators on Sunday

Deese will hold a call with a bipartisan group of senators about the aid package on Sunday. Speaking to reporters Friday, he said he will try to "engage with" the senators and "understand their concerns."

Democrats, who control a 50-50 Senate through Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote, will need to win 10 GOP votes for the plan or use budget reconciliation, which requires only a majority. The White House has said Biden wants to pass a bill with bipartisan support.

Deese did not directly answer Friday when asked at what point the Biden administration would decide it should move forward with only Democratic support.

The Biden administration has warned that the U.S. economic recovery could fizzle and stressed that the risk of spending too much money is lower than the risk of spending too little. Another 900,000 people made first-time jobless claims last week, and roughly 16 million people were receiving benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday.

A $300 per week federal unemployment supplement included in the latest aid law expires on March 14. Biden's plan seeks to extend the jobless benefit at an increased $400 per week through September.

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