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State stimulus proposal overly generous

As the Oregon Legislature nears the end of the 2021 session, a proposal has surfaced to give state stimulus checks to essential workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic, and possibly incentive bonuses to encourage essential employees to return to work. While it’s not a bad idea to reward those who risked their own health to serve the public in low-paying jobs, the bill as introduced would send checks to many workers who really don’t need the help.

House Bill 3409 received its first reading only on Monday, so there is a chance the measure won’t make it through the process before lawmakers adjourn by the end of the month.

The bill would use $450 million of the $2.6 billion Oregon received from the American Rescue Plan. Congress specifically authorized states to use some of the money to reward essential workers and get others to return to work. We’re not sure Congress had in mind assistance quite as generous as proposed in Oregon, however.

The Oregon bill would send $2,000 bonuses to workers making less than the state average of about $26.50 an hour. That’s a little over $55,000 a year. So far so good. Eligible job categories include health care, law enforcement, education, agriculture and transportation, among others. Workers would have had to be within 6 feet of the public while on the job or have worked cleaning public facilities. Those who worked from home would not be eligible. Again, those are reasonable requirements for workers toward the lower end of the pay scale.

But the bill would give $1,000 payments to workers making up to 150% of the average wage. That’s more than $82,000 a year.

Do workers who were employed during the entirety of the pandemic and earn that much need an extra grand to make ends meet? We seriously doubt it.

Workers in lower-paid but essential jobs could have opted for the enhanced unemployment benefits and stayed home. Rewarding them for continuing to work at risk to themselves and to their families is no unreasonable, and if they spend the money and put it back into the economy, that helps local businesses as well.

The dollars proposed for higher-paid workers would be better spent helping struggling or closed businesses get back on their feet, thereby providing more jobs for those still unemployed.