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Pandemic shows contrasts between US, European safety nets

The coronavirus pandemic is straining social safety nets across the globe — and underlining sharp differences in approach between wealthy societies such as the United States and Europe.

In Europe, the collapse in business activity is triggering wage support programs that are keeping millions on the job, for now. In contrast, in the United States more than 33.5 million people have applied for jobless benefits and the unemployment rate has soared to 14.7%. Congress has passed $2 trillion in emergency support, boosting jobless benefits and writing stimulus checks of up to $1,200 per taxpayer.

That is a pattern seen in earlier economic downturns, particularly the global financial crisis and the Great Recession. Europe depends on existing programs kicking in that pump money into people’s pockets. The U.S., on the other hand, relies on Congress taking action by passing emergency stimulus programs, as it did in 2009 under President Barack Obama, and the recent rescue package under President Donald Trump.

Economist Andre Sapir, a senior fellow at the Bruegel research institute in Brussels, said budget policy in the U.S. plays partly the role that Europe’s welfare system plays because the American welfare system is less generous and a recession can be much harsher on workers.

In downturns, U.S. employees can lose their health insurance if they lose their job and there’s also a greater risk of losing one’s home through foreclosure. On the other hand, Europeans typically pay higher taxes, meaning they earn less in the good times.

“In the U.S. you need to keep pumping money into the economy so that people continue to be employed, because it is through being employed that they are protected,” said Sapir. “Which is the better system? I’m not going into that discussion because that is really a huge issue.”

The U.S. tends to rank below average on measures of social support among the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, whose members are mostly developed democracies. The U.S. came last in people living in relative poverty, meaning living on half the median income or less, with 17.8%. Countries like Iceland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Finland have less than 6%.

Here’s a look at how the social safety nets of the U.S. and Europe compare:

Unemployment benefitsAmericans on unemployment were collecting an average of about $372 weekly before the coronavirus struck. But that average could range from $215 in Mississippi to $543 in Hawaii. The rescue package gave jobless workers an additional $600 a week through July. It also extended benefits to those who lost work as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, which could include parents who needed to leave their jobs because schools were closed. Most states offer six months of unemployment but the emergency legislation adds 13 weeks.

By comparison, Germany’s jobless benefit pays 60% of previous salary for a year. France provides up to 75% of the previous average daily wage for up to two years. Unemployment benefits in France are on average 1,200 euros ($1,320) per month.

And there’s Europe’s short-hours programs, which pay most of worker salaries if companies put them on shorter hours through a temporary disruption. More than 10 million workers are being paid that way in Germany and about 12 million in France, helping hold eurozone unemployment to only a 0.1 percentage point increase in March over February, to 7.4%.

The U.S. emergency package included money for cheap loans to businesses that can be forgiven if the money is used mostly for payroll.

Health insurance

Nearly half of Americans receive health insurance through their employers, while another 34% get benefits through the government programs Medicare and Medicaid. Separately, 6% are insured individually and 9% in 2018 had no insurance at all.

In Europe, universal health coverage is the rule, generally funded by payroll or other taxes. One example is Britain’s National Health Service, which is funded by taxes and offers free care that costs the government 7% of GDP per year.

Maternity benefits

U.S. workers are entitled to unpaid family leave, but no federal law requires private employers to provide paid family leave. In the private sector, 16% of workers had access to paid family leave as of March 2018. Some states offer paid family leave insurance for 4 to 10 weeks. The United States is the only country in the OECD to not offer paid leave to new mothers.

In France, by contrast, mothers are entitled to at least 16 weeks of leave for their first child and must take at least 8 weeks. From the third child onward, they are allowed 26 weeks. Workers get a daily maternity leave allowance of up to 89 euros ($94.50). But some professions have their own more favorable deals, up to the complete payment of salaries.

Denmark gives 52 weeks of parental leave after a birth or adoption, to be shared by the parents; whether at full salary or not depends on workplace agreements.


Roughly 8.3 million Americans collect disability benefits earned through Social Security contributions. The payments average $15,100 annually — just above the poverty level for a one-person household of $12,760. Standards are strict and most applications are denied; people who don’t qualify may wind up on food stamps, a basic subsistence program. The U.S. ranks 30th among 36 OECD countries in spending on all forms of disability related to work or illness.

In France, the totally disabled are eligible for public health insurance payments of at least 292.80 euros ($311) a month and no more than 1,714 euros ($1,825). Those who are totally unable to work and also depend on help for daily tasks are eligible for 1,418 to 2,839 euros ($1,510 to $3,027) a month. The payments can be combined with other forms of income and be subjected to tax and social security contributions.

The costs

Europe’s more generous social safety nets come at a cost, largely paid through taxes levied on workers and employers.

In the United States, Social Security contributions amounted to 6% of GDP in 2018, according to the OECD. In France it was almost three times higher, at 16% of annual GDP, while in Germany it was just over 14%.

Brush piles up as cloistered Waco residents take on home improvement projects

Brush and bulky trash pickup is backed up in part because people are staying home, starting projects and taking care of yard work.

According to city solid waste crews, requests for curbside collection of bulky waste in March and April increased from 62 requests last year to 492 this year. At the same time, the number of residents coming to the city of Waco landfill to dispose of brush from yard work and bulky trash from home projects has increased tenfold, Solid Waste Services Director Chuck Dowdell said.

“There are a lot of people that had to shelter in place, and … they decided to do projects,” Dowdell said. “I didn’t know everyone in the city was going to do that.”

According to the city of Waco website, residents are allowed one brush pile pickup every other week, when green yard waste carts are picked up. Brush piles cannot be any bigger than 4-by-4-by-4 feet and cannot contain limbs larger than 3 inches in diameter. Anything larger must be hauled to the landfill.

Personal vehicles need to be weighed before and after unloading under state law, and they have to be unloaded by hand.

“We would normally have 10 to 15 cars per day,” Dowdell said. “That would be what I would call your small pickup trucks and trailers, and now it’s hundreds per day. It’s a 10- or 15-fold increase of the customers coming in, and those are the smaller variety, not the commercial.”

Registered residential garbage trucks now bypass the scale house altogether in an effort to make more space for people in personal vehicles looking to get rid of brush and debris, but cars have to line up at a greater distance than they normally would to comply with social distancing while they wait for their turn to use the site’s scale.

“Some people don’t like it. Some people get mad, and I completely understand it,” Dowdell said. “I don’t like waiting in line. Who does? But there’s just nothing else we can do.”

Dowdell said delays were up to more than 2 hours before officials decided to have registered trucks skip the line.

“It’s just the time of year that people do cutting and all of their larger maintenance on their yards,” Dowdell said. “We’ve got people who’ve never been there before. They have no idea what the rules are.”

Spotters direct people, but some customers get frustrated and throw their waste away in the wrong area, which takes up more staff time to sort out and clean up.

“Hundreds of people, hundreds more than we normally see, show up at our scale house,” Dowdell said.

Some private facilities have closed, and people have come from out of town to dispose of their debris, he said.

Nick Ebertz, residential operations coordinator for the solid waste department, said he started noticing the increase in requests for curbside pickup about three weeks ago.

“A lot of people are putting a 4-by-4 pile out like they’re supposed to, but they’re putting three or four of them out, and that’s against the rules,” Ebertz said.

Crews are being a bit more lenient about trash pickup rules, overlooking an overflowing bin here or a trash bag set on the ground there as people have to dispose of more trash than usual. About half of Waco’s 48,000 households receiving trash service fully follow the rules in any given week, Ebertz said.

Residents can dispose of brush or bulky trash at the Cobbs Recycling Center, 2021 N. 44th St., or the city of Waco landfill at 1624 Hannah Hill Road. Drop off at both locations requires proof of residency. Residents can call 299-2612 to have bulky items or brush picked up.

Photo gallery: Virus outbreak protests and more

Top pics from the weekend: Virus Outbreak Protests, and more

US virus patients and businesses sue China over outbreak

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before the coronavirus outbreak, Saundra Andringa-Meuer was a healthy 61-year-old mother of six who never smoked or drank alcohol. Then she became seriously ill with the disease after traveling from her Wisconsin home to help her son move from college in Connecticut.

She was hospitalized in March, ending up in a coma and on a ventilator for 14 days. Doctors told her family she had a slim chance to live. When she emerged, she was told she was the sickest COVID-19 patient they had seen survive.

Now Andringa-Meuer has joined with dozens of other American virus patients and some U.S. businesses in taking a new legal step: They are attempting to sue China over the spread of the virus, which has killed at least 75,000 people in the United States.

“I do feel that they hid it from the world and from Americans,” she said. “I don’t feel we had to have the loss of life. I don’t think we had to have the economy shut down. It disrupted all of American lives. I do believe we need to right some of these wrongs.”

So far, at least nine lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. against China claiming authorities there did not do enough to corral the virus initially, tried to hide what was happening in the outbreak center of Wuhan and sought to conceal their actions and what they knew.

Eight of the lawsuits are potential class actions that would represent thousands of people and businesses. One was filed by the attorney general of Missouri, which is so far the only state to take legal action against China.

The cases face several hurdles under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which states that foreign governments cannot be sued in the U.S. unless certain exceptions are met. And those are not easy to prove, experts say.

“We think it’s going to be an uphill battle for them to ultimately take advantage of those exceptions,” said Robert Boone, an attorney in Los Angeles who specializes in class action cases.

One exception involves commercial activity that directly affects the U.S. Another is misconduct inside the U.S. under certain circumstances that is traceable to a foreign government. A third exception is whether the foreign entity explicitly waived its immunity, such as through language in a contract.

Attorneys who have filed the lawsuits say they can prove those claims, and, if they win, find some method of collecting damages, perhaps by seizing Chinese bank accounts or other assets in the U.S. if the Chinese refuse to pay.

In one case filed in Miami federal court on behalf of Andringa-Meurer and many others, attorneys Matthew Moore and Jeremy Alters are suing the Chinese Communist Party as an entity separate from the Chinese government.

“They have their own assets. They are recognized as an independent organization. We are going to argue they are not a part of the government,” Moore said. “There has been personal injury that happened in the United States.”

Added Alters: “They’re going to have to pay ... We can say, ‘We’re not going to do business with you anymore.’ When you hit them in the (gross domestic product), it hurts.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang defended his country’s record of fighting the virus. He said the lawsuit filed by the Missouri attorney general is “very absurd and has no factual and legal basis.”

Since the outbreak began, China has proceeded in an “open, transparent, and responsible manner,” and the U.S. government should “dismiss such vexatious litigation,” he said.

Efforts are underway in Congress and in some state legislatures to make it easier to sue China and other countries. One bill was introduced by Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Martha McSally of Arizona, and GOP U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas in the House.

“The Chinese government must be held accountable for the pain it’s inflicted across the United States,” McSally said in a statement. The proposed legislation “will give the U.S. a piece of justice.”

In New Jersey, three Republican state lawmakers introduced a resolution urging President Donald Trump and Congress to pass a bill letting citizens sue China for “mishandling” the pandemic.

State Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and John Catalano said in a statement that they believe Chinese leaders did little to stop the spread of the virus and that residents and local governments should be legally allowed to recover some of what they lost financially.

It’s not clear if any of the legislation will pass. If the bills were enacted, legal experts say they could open the floodgates for hundreds more lawsuits against China.

“If that immunity were stripped, it’s going to produce a gigantic burden on the court system,” said Boone, the class action lawyer. “That’s a factor that will need to be weighed in deciding whether to pass it.”

As for Andringa-Meurer, she said she’s still somewhat frail but getting better all the time.

“I’m weak, but I’m fabulous. I’m alive,” she said. “I want to give back, not only to the doctors and nurses who gave me the opportunity to live. They are the heroes. But also to all of the Americans who were affected by this.”

Pence, task force members isolate after virus exposure

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence is self-isolating after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

An administration official says Pence is voluntarily limiting his exposure and will work from home. He has repeatedly tested negative for COVID-19 since his exposure but is following the advice of medical officials.

Pence’s move comes after three members of the White House’s coronavirus task force placed themselves in quarantine after coming into contact with the aide, Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller.

Pence was informed of the positive test Friday morning before he left Washington for a day-trip to Iowa.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, placed themselves in quarantine after contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, another stark reminder that not even one of the nation’s most secure buildings is immune from the virus.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the task force, has become nationally known for his simple and direct explanations to the public about the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Also quarantining are Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn.

Fauci’s institute said that he has tested negative for COVID-19 and will continue to be tested regularly. It added that he is considered at “relatively low risk” based on the degree of his exposure, and that he would be “taking appropriate precautions” to mitigate the risk to personal contacts while still carrying out his duties. While he will stay at home and telework, Fauci will go to the White House if called and take every precaution, the institute said.

Redfield will be “teleworking for the next two weeks” after it was determined he had a “low risk exposure” to a person at the White House, the CDC said in a statement Saturday evening. The statement said he felt fine and has no symptoms.

Just a few hours earlier, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that Hahn had come in contact with someone who tested positive and was in self-quarantine for the next two weeks. He tested negative for the virus.

All three men are scheduled to testify before a Senate committee on Tuesday. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the panel, said the White House will allow Redfield and Hahn to testify by videoconference, a one-time exception to the administration’s policies on hearing testimony. The statement was issued before Fauci’s quarantine was announced.

Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday, making her the second person who works at the White House complex known to test positive for the virus this week. White House officials had confirmed Thursday that a member of the military serving as one of Trump’s valets had tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump, who publicly identified the affected Pence aide as spokeswoman Katie Miller, said he was “not worried” about the virus spreading in the White House. Nonetheless, officials said they were stepping up safety protocols for the complex.

Miller had been in recent contact with Pence but not with the president and had tested negative a day earlier. She is married to Stephen Miller, a top Trump adviser. The White House had no immediate comment on whether Stephen Miller had been tested or if he was still working in the White House.

The CDC and FDA would not disclose the identity of the person who had tested positive and with whom the agency leaders had come in contact.

Redfield sought to use the exposure as a teachable moment. The CDC statement said if he must go to the White House to fulfill any responsibilities as part of the coronavirus task force, he will follow CDC practices for critical infrastructure workers. Those guidelines call for Redfield and anyone working on the task force to have their temperature taken and screened for symptoms each day, wear a face covering, and distance themselves from others.

Trump has resisted wearing a mask, and in a meeting with the nation’s top military leaders Saturday evening, he did not wear a mask during the brief portion that reporters were allowed to view. The generals around Trump also did not wear a mask, but participants did sit a few feet away from each other.