March 05, 2020

Harris Questions Admin Officials on Coronavirus Preparations for Vulnerable Populations

 To view video of Harris’ questioning, click here. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, on Thursday questioned Department of Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli and other administration officials about the preparations they are making for vulnerable populations who might be particularly impacted by coronavirus, including workers without paid sick leave, federal employees without teleworking options, and undocumented immigrants.

“What is the administration planning to do to encourage employers to provide paid sick leave for sick employees so that they will stay at home and not have to face that that awful decision about whether they stay at home in the interest of public safety or don’t put food on the table of their family?” asked Harris.

Cuccinelli responded, “I will speak first to the to the communications we've had with people across the private sector, we in addition to our accelerated communications with local and state level officials, we've also been talking to non-healthcare, private enterprises and encouraging them in this direction as well, recognizing the burden that asking employees to stay home imposes both on the business and on the employee.”

Harris also asked about the administration’s efforts to dispel misinformation about coronavirus that has resulted in bias towards Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.

“What is the administration prepared to do in terms of committing to actively dispelling misinformation about this issue? Because it is very real, and we already have enough fear about the public health crisis, but to compound that—that our friends and relatives and neighbors would have fear about being profiled is something very real,” asked Harris.

Cuccinelli responded, “We want to be very clear, as you said, and I'll say it clearly, the task force, it's, there's without question, no difference that this virus shows whether you're black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or anything else. And the dangers are to the same people, regardless of race, ethnicity, etc. And our responses should be irregardless of people's skin color, ethnicity, and obviously, that's how the federal government and how we're responding to it.”

Full transcript of Harris’ questioning is below:

HARRIS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As you know, I am my state is home to 40 million people, and we have the largest number of cases. 62. Yesterday, our governor declared a state of emergency for the entire state. This, the coronavirus, I think presents an interesting convergence between public health concerns and pay equity concerns. Specifically, two thirds of low-income workers in the United States do not have paid sick leave. And as we know, we have been encouraging people who are sick to stay at home. Often people who are in that pay category also are in the service industry. They work in restaurants, they work in hotels, they work in childcare, they have contact with a lot of people. For them to stay at home, in the interest of public safety, means they might not be able to put food on their table.

So, my question is, understanding this is a very real issue. What is the administration planning to do to encourage employers to provide paid sick leave for sick employees so that they will stay at home and not have to face that that awful decision about whether they stay at home in the interest of public safety or don't put food on the table of their family.

CUCCINELLI: So I will speak first to the to the communications we've had with people across the private sector, we in addition to our accelerated communications with local and state level officials, we've also been talking to non-healthcare, private enterprises and encouraging them in this direction as well, recognizing the burden that asking employees to stay home imposes both on the business and on the employee. And, you identify senator, certain businesses where it's important for everyone else, not just co-workers for that person to stay home and if you're serving food then and…

HARRIS: Like a fast food worker.

CUCCINELLI: Because the customers of that restaurant don't want you to come to work right.

HARRIS: So what can we do to support you talking with the private sector, will pay about providing paid family leave during this this

CUCCINELLI: So CISA has already standing sector consortiums that they're talking to, and this is one of the subjects that they've talked to them about, about supporting employees who are asked to stay home. Obviously, we're also asking businesses in those lines of work where it's possible to make the telework arrangements so people can keep working, and they can keep getting paid and you know, you don't function as well, but they can still earn money for their families.

HARRIS: But but but my concern is, is that for the majority of low-income workers who do not have paid sick leave, they are in the service industry. So, teleworking is not an option for them. So perhaps we can follow up to determine how we can support what it sounds like is your efforts

to figure out ways that we can make sure that these employees don't have to make a decision between paying their rent or contributing to what we know as public health.

CUCCINELLI: There are there is more money available and I will defer to Dr. Kelly, because that's out of HHS.

KADLEC: And just one other area, ma'am, on the White House Task Force. Secretary Mnuchin, Mr. Kudlow, and the National Economic Council are involved in this and they're looking at ways. And the conversations I've heard have been about small businesses and again, a very critical part of supporting individuals and how they can do that. So, I'm sure they will welcome the opportunity to work with Congress to figure out how ways to basically support individually facing this problem who are challenged.

HARRIS: Thank you. Federal employees. So, we have many federal employees who again, their job does not allow them to telecommute: TSA, for example, postal workers. What is the administration's plan for those workers in terms of what is  - an also soon to be

enumerators for the 2020 census which of course starts April 1 - what is the administration's plan for dealing with those federal workers who do not have the ability to telework and do their jobs?

CUCCINELLI: So, one of the subgroups in the task force is dealing with the federal work force and of course, a to use the Department Homeland Security as an example, we have a building in Washington state where we unfortunately have had an employee test positive. That is an office building setting. That's one setting that DHS operates. It's a lot different than a border patrol station, or a TSA desk where a bunch of people are going by you in close proximity each day. For those folks, people like the TSA example you used senator and it would apply to CBP and others -  we have made PPP available to them. The medical guidance on how to use it, it does require appropriate training to use correctly in a way that is advantageous to the wearer.

And, and I been out to Dulles airport myself when China flights were coming. And I observed the difference in the employees, for instance, the CBP OFO employees who when I arrived at the airport with no flights had their uniform on and otherwise look like you and me. And when the China flights were arriving gloves and masks were on.

HARRIS: That's great.

CUCCINELLI: And and and that is available to all of our employees. And that is true for the frontline folks across the federal government, but that is being closely studied. And we're doing things like pulling down, unnecessary travel, other things where we don't create risks for either employees or the general public.

HARRIS: Thank you. In follow up to Senator Rosen's question about immigrants and undocumented immigrants, the reality is that we have many undocumented immigrants who are in America's workforce. And we also recently had an announcement from ICE that they were going to increase the enforcement, so it is a legitimate and real concern that undocumented immigrants in particular and their family members are in fear of and certainly discouraged from going to public health facilities to receive treatment if they are sick. I heard what you said about the policy. Would you be willing Mr. Cuccinelli to issue a public statement that during the crisis that we are now facing around the coronavirus that there will not be ICE enforcement at these public health facilities, be they hospitals, medical clinics or things of that nature?

CUCCINELLI: We actually issued a statement yesterday in response to similar inquiries. Obviously, we are statement was based off the existing policy, but we did restate that publicly just yesterday.

HARRIS: Okay, that's great. And then for both witnesses. There has been a lot of discrimination against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, and public health experts agree that the coronavirus does not focus on our target any group by race or ethnicity. Yet, we are seeing many, many reports and hearing many reports of intimidation of profiling and threats, in particular to our Asian American community and friends. So, what is the administration prepared to do in terms of committing to actively dispelling misinformation about this issue, because it is very real. And we already have enough fear about the public health crisis, but to compound that, that our friends and relatives and neighbors would have fear about being profiled is something very real.

CUCCINELLI: So obviously, we're trying to convey calmly, lots of different information about a virus about which much is unknown. And we have woven into remarks really at every level of government, the very same concern you've just voiced because periodically and we typically do it candidly, when we have instances brought to our attention, so that in our our now is the Department of Homeland Security. And the same would apply in other places.

In our soon, thereafter, public statements is when we try to knock that back. That's when we talk about that. We want to be very clear, as you said, and I'll say it clearly, the task force, it's, there's without question, no difference that this virus shows whether you're black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or anything else. And the dangers are to the same people, regardless of race, ethnicity, etc. And our responses should be irregardless of people's skin color, ethnicity, and obviously, that's how the federal government and how we're responding to it. At the same time, you know, you know, I use the northern border with China to 212 F Proclamation, more Canadians have been barred from the United States on the northern border than Chinese - 113 to 90 because of that proclamation, and it's because it was traveled based, it wasn't that you're Chinese. It's that you have been in the hot zone in the in the targeted time period of 14 days. And we'll continue to operate that way and continue to make efforts to knock down storylines or narratives that say anything different from that.

HARRIS: Thank you.

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