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Corporations are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic | COMMENTARY

Sens. Richard Burr, D-N.C.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; and James Inhofe, R-Okla. are accused of insider trading after selling millions of dollars in stock during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sens. Richard Burr, D-N.C.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; and James Inhofe, R-Okla. are accused of insider trading after selling millions of dollars in stock during the coronavirus pandemic.(Bill Bramhall)

Societies gripped by cataclysmic wars, depressions or pandemics can become acutely sensitive to power and privilege.

Weeks before the coronavirus virus crushed the U.S. stock market, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina apparently used information he gleaned from his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee about the ferocity of the coming pandemic to unload 33 stocks held by him and his spouse, estimated at between $628,033 and $1.72 million, in some industries likely to be hardest hit by the global outbreak.

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While publicly parroting Mr. Trump’s happy talk at the time, Mr. Burr confided to several of his political funders that the disease would be comparable to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic.

Then the market tanked, along with the retirement savings of millions of Americans.

Even some pundits on Fox News are now calling for Mr. Burr’s resignation.

When society faces a common threat, exploiting a special advantage is morally repugnant. Call it "Burring." However tolerable Burring may be in normal times, it isn't now.

In normal times, corporations get special favors from Washington in exchange for generous campaign contributions, and no one bats an eye. Recall the Trump tax cut, which delivered $1.9 trillion to big corporations and the wealthy.

Yet the coronavirus should have altered business as usual. The most recent Senate Republican relief package, which would give airlines $58 billion and give billions more to other industries, is pure Burring.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried lamely to distinguish it from the notorious bank bailouts of 2008.

“We are not talking about a taxpayer-funded cushion for companies that made mistakes,” Mr. McConnell said. “We are talking about loans, which must be repaid, for American employers whom the government itself is temporarily crushing for the sake of public health.”

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But the airlines are big enough to get their own loans from banks at rock-bottom interest rates. Their planes and landing slots are more than adequate collateral.

Why do airlines deserve to be bailed out? Over the last decade they spent 96% of their free cash flow, including billions in tax savings from the Trump tax cut, to buy back shares of their own stock. This boosted executive bonuses and pleased wealthy investors but did nothing to strengthen the airlines for the long term. Meanwhile, the four biggest carriers gained so much market power they jacked up prices on popular routes and slashed services. (Remember legroom and free bag checks?)

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz did his own Burring last week, warning that if Congress doesn't bailout the airline by the end of March, United will start firing its employees. But even if bailed out, what are the odds United would keep paying all its workers if the pandemic forced it to stop flying? The bailout would be for shareholders and executives, not employees.

While generous toward airlines and other industries, the Republican bill is absurdly stingy toward people, stipulating a one-time payment of up to $1,200 for every adult and $500 per child. Some 64 million households with incomes below $50,000 would get as little as $600. This will do almost nothing to help job-losers pay their mortgages, rents and other bills for the duration of the crisis, expected to last at least the next three months.

The Republican coronavirus bill is about as Burring as legislation can be — exposing the underlying structure of power in America as clearly as Mr. Burr’s stock trades. In this national crisis, it’s just as morally repulsive.

Take a look at how big corporations are treating their hourly workers in this pandemic and you see more Burring.

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Walmart, the largest employer in America, doesn’t give its employees paid sick leave and limits its 500,000 part-time workers to 48 hours paid time off per year. This policy is now threatening countless lives. (In one survey, 88% of Walmart employees reported sometimes coming to work when sick.)

None of the giants of the fast-food industry — McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Subway — give their workers paid sick leave, either.

Amazon, one of the richest corporations in the world, which paid almost no taxes last year, is offering unpaid time off for workers who are sick and just two weeks' paid leave for workers who test positive for the virus. Meanwhile, it demands that its employees put in mandatory overtime.

And here's the most Burring thing of all: These corporations have made sure they and other companies with more than 500 employees are exempt from the requirement in the House coronavirus bill that employers provide paid sick leave.

At a time when almost everyone feels burdened and fearful, the use of power and privilege to exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others is morally intolerable.

We are all in this together, or should be. Whatever form it takes, Burring must be stopped.

Robert Reich’s new book, “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It,” will be out in March.

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