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Help for workers should be top priority

Now, it’s about the economy.

We know how to help keep the novel coronavirus from spreading. We know how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from contracting COVID-19: wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, stay home, and if we must leave the house, stay

6 feet or more away from everyone we encounter. Work from home if possible.

What we don’t know is how to weather the economic storm.

Governors across the country, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, have ordered restaurants and bars to close except for meals to go. Food servers, cooks and other employees suddenly find themselves out of work, or with drastically reduced hours.

Sick leave, even if they have it, won’t help if a business closes its doors. Unemployment benefits will help, but there are delays. The Oregon Employment Department website crashed on Monday after the governor’s announcement. The site came back up, but went down again for a time Tuesday afternoon.

Congress is working on a bill to protect some, but not all, workers by giving tax credits to small businesses to expand paid leave for their employees. Trump administration officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Republican senators Monday night to approve the House-passed bill, plus take up a new economic stimulus package that could total $850 billion, including checks sent directly to Americans rather that the payroll tax holiday President Trump suggested earlier.

Cash payments to individual Americans is a reasonable response to the shutdowns that have halted entire industries and thrown many low-wage earners out of work. Oregon officials can and should weigh in as well.

State unemployment benefits are generally granted to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Workers who are sick or quarantined, or want to stay away from work to avoid exposure to the virus, ordinarily are not eligible for benefits, but the state Employment Department is recommending that those people file a claim anyway in case some benefits may apply.

That’s where the Legislature should step in. Legislative leaders in both parties said this week they support convening a special session to address the coronavirus pandemic. No date has been set, but that should happen sooner rather than later, and help for displaced workers should be at the top of the agenda.

Meanwhile, Oregonians who are out of work because of the virus should file a claim right away. It takes a week for benefits to be approved, and three weeks before payments begin.

Self-employed workers, such as musicians and other entertainers who work in clubs, restaurants and wineries, are not eligible for unemployment benefits because they don’t pay into the system and are not employees of the venues who hire them, but they are affected just as profoundly as servers and bartenders. Lawmakers should consider assistance for them as well.

No one knows how long economic disruption from the coronavirus will last. Lawmakers at the state and federal levels must act quickly and decisively to ease the blow.