Coronavirus relief funds should be used to pay for workers, not bail out corporations

Have you ever had to file for government assistance? Are you facing that question right now for the first time in your life? 

Millions of American workers now find themselves wading through piles of unemployment forms, listening for hours to jarring hold music to get a question answered, and reloading websites that are crashing under unprecedented demand.

About 157 million Americans got health insurance through their jobs in 2018, and as those jobs disappear, workers confront sky-high COBRA premiums or an impossible puzzle of Medicaid eligibility.  

What if workers kept their paychecks and health insurance, and had the certainty that their same jobs would be there when the economy is able to reopen? 

That’s exactly what’s happening for aviation workers, thanks to a framework that aviation unions proposed and fought for alongside Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Peter DeFazio—and won. In the CARES Act, Congress dedicated $31 billion in payroll grants for aviation. These grants can be used for one thing only: to keep 750,000 airline employees and other aviation workers on payroll and connected to their health insurance. 

With air travel all but stopped, an overwhelming majority of those workers could be on the unemployment line in the coming weeks. But under the CARES Act provisions for aviation, workers will receive their pay and health care. 

It’s a safeguard for economic recovery too. Most aviation workers must pass security checks and safety training that take time and resources. Aviation is critical to moving the U.S. economy, responsible for creating 10 million jobs and $1.7 trillion in economic activity. With these grants, workers are ready to return to work once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, so the industry can lift off and the economy isn’t left sitting at the gate waiting for a flight crew.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could make that paycheck security the same reality for tens of millions more American workers. In the CARES Act, Congress created a $500 billion Economic Stabilization Fund. Recognizing the nature of the crisis, Congress gave Mnuchin broad discretion, including the ability to set the terms of loans to best serve the federal government’s interests. 

Over the past 20 years, Washington has handed out bailout after bailout to Wall Street and corporate America—like the 2008 bank bailouts or the 2001 airline bailouts—while everyday workers got pink slips and eviction notices. 

It doesn’t have to be that way this time. 

Here’s how: Big corporations are also big employers. With payroll systems already in place with concrete data on pay and benefits that workers were receiving before the pandemic, those big companies could easily keep on cutting checks to workers if they had the support to do so.

Unemployment systems around the country are already “overwhelmed,” reports Politico, and we’re likely to see millions more workers join in the coming weeks. But if Mnuchin uses the CARES Act to keep workers connected to existing payrolls, it would protect jobs and take advantage of the systems that are already in place, instead of further burdening both individuals and public programs. By using his authority to convert loans into payroll grants—like the aviation sector—or to forgive any portion of loans used for payroll—like the small-business loans also in the bill—Mnuchin could help accomplish this goal.

While Mnuchin could use his power to go with more of the same corporate handouts, strict oversight, independent of the Treasury Department, could help push him to use his authority to help working people instead. The Congressional Oversight Commission has broad authority to conduct public hearings and give real-time information to the American people—making it all the more important to appoint strong, fearless members to the commission. 

It will be the commission’s responsibility to shed light on any efforts by the Treasury Department to allow stock buybacks, dividends, increased executive compensation, or corporate abuse like cheating consumers. Short of passing corporate oversight provisions through a Republican Senate, subpoena power and a bullhorn are two of the most important ways to ensure that the Stabilization Fund retains its original purpose of being a workers’ relief package, not a handout to corporate America. 

With powerful, real-time action by the Congressional Oversight Commission, the CARES Act can prioritize American lives and livelihoods during this pandemic. It can provide security for millions of workers—and make sure the U.S. economy isn’t a permanent victim of this virus. 

Katie Porter is a member of Congress from the 45th district of California. 

Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines.

More opinion in Fortune:

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—Coronavirus is igniting a devastating crisis for highly indebted companies
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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