During my time in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, through countless changes to economic conditions and leadership, I was proud to represent my home state of Georgia and the interests of the people and organizations that make it great.
As I’ve stepped away from public office this year, I have not stepped back from advocating for policies that would help my state - the results of the COVID-19 pandemic included. The present conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are like nothing we have experienced before, and I urge economic caution to be observed along with health warnings as we adapt to changing circumstances. We want to help all those feeling the adverse economic effects of this crisis without causing unintended consequences.
I was relieved to see the government step in to assist Americans and our economic structure through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Along with help for individual Americans and families, small businesses, it was important that the legislation also help industry of all sizes.
In Georgia, the airline industry is the largest employer, with Delta alone providing livelihoods for more than 30,000 workers. Across the country, airlines employ over 750,000 Americans, and indirectly support the jobs of 10 million. The importance of this industry to our economy is clear.
For this remarkable $2 trillion stimulus package, Democrats and Republicans came together to rescue American enterprise and jobs during an unprecedented crisis. But as the Treasury Department begins to produce guidelines for its implementation, it is clear that we are far from any true sense of how this crisis will play out for Americans.
As someone who has written and voted on landmark legislation, I know that it’s not just the legislation, but the details — and how they are interpreted — are of the utmost importance. In the case of the CARES Act, one of the critical details is that it’s possible that the government could earn a financial return in exchange for the U.S. airline worker payroll assistance. That’s just wrong.
The $25 billion provided in payroll assistance should not go in a corporate slush fund, but instead be sent directly into the pockets of hardworking U.S. airline employees. These workers will not only avoid reliance on state or federal unemployment funds, they will also have cash to support other businesses. This has a substantial impact for the U.S. economy.
We should also recognize that the airline industry fills a unique role in driving the resurgence of our economy. Once America reopens for business, we need airlines to be ready to take off, connecting people, businesses and cargo. If the U.S. airline industry was forced to lay off thousands of employees in the face of the unprecedented collapse in demand due to COVID-19, rehiring, retraining and re-certifying its workforce would only further delay our recovery. This alone is a significant return on the payroll assistance program.
I’ve heard arguments that the government must take this stance to ensure the program is only used in the most dire of situations. However, the data is already dire. Just last week, the jobs report showed over 3.2 million new unemployment claims, and there is every indication that this number will go up by another million this week. This is an unprecedented national health emergency, and now is not the time to be opportunistic.
Government support is meant for just such extraordinary times. While our country is already experiencing unemployment in rates rarely seen, U.S. airlines are facing an industry-specific challenge threatening their very existence: plummeting demand. Nearly 1,300 aircraft are now idling, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported a 92% decline in screenings from the 2.5 million screenings it reported just a year ago. The combination of travel restrictions and public fear have decimated a once-robust industry that will be needed when this crisis passes.
Let’s don’t forget that time and again, U.S. airline employees have proven themselves as resilient, patriotic and dedicated workers. These brave men and women are working with the U.S. government to get medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas and continue to help people get home safely amidst an enormous crisis – all in the face of the health risk. U.S. airline employees continue to go to work to provide an essential service to our county. Those employees will be ready when our country is ready to travel again.
With the right policies in place, airlines will be poised to help the United States recover from this crisis. These companies play a unique role and have long been a major economic engine of our country. With the millions of jobs they support, they will continue to be.
Former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson served in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate from 1999 until 2019.