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When the Democratic primary between Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy began, Massachusetts boasted one of the strongest economies in the country.
Now, the candidates find themselves representing the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate. Roughly 1 million people in Massachusetts remain out of work, according federal data released Thursday.
Many jobless workers are also voters — and Markey and Kennedy are trying to help them.
The main battleground for unemployment benefits is in the Senate, where the Republican majority has proposed cutting extra coronavirus relief payments from $600 per week to $200. Markey has one word for that: "No."
Markey and fellow Democrats want to extend the full $600. While the parties fight over the difference, the extra benefit is down to $0 because it expired last month.
Markey realizes stubbornness may be risky as the primary approaches. The many jobless workers in Massachusetts might at least get partial relief if Senate Democrats would go along with their GOP colleagues.
"There will be Republicans who will be saying, 'You're not getting relief because the Democrats are holding it up,' " Markey acknowledged.
But this is where Markey makes an implicit case for his decades of Washington experience. He says he knows the negotiation game, and Republican senators, well enough to predict how the standoff will end. He thinks coronavirus spikes in red states will pressure Republicans to raise their offer — and he'll be able to say he helped deliver a better deal to his constituents by holding out.
"In my conversations with Republican senators, many of them are just frightened at the political tsunami that is headed their way because of the mismanagement of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic by the president and Republican leadership," Markey said. "And, ultimately, I believe that pragmatic view will prevail."
House Democrats, who include Kennedy, also would have to approve a deal on unemployment benefits. A new round of talks among the White House and congressional leaders is scheduled for Thursday night.
Kennedy previously voted for a House bill that would have renewed the additional $600 of unemployment insurance. Now, he's pushing for something else, too — something he's been thinking about for a while.
"A couple years ago, I was running around the country campaigning for colleagues," Kennedy began, weaving in a familiar campaign refrain. He often notes that he was more active than Markey in stumping for fellow Democrats during the 2018 midterm election.
Kennedy says he heard over and over in his travels about challenges facing temporary workers, particularly those employed by staffing agencies.
"Temp workers are doing the exact same work; they're just doing it for less," he said.
So, Kennedy and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, are sponsoring a bill that would require companies to pay temp workers the same wage as direct hires. This would be a permanent change, but Kennedy says it's especially important now, when unemployment is high and some workers might feel forced into temp jobs that don't pay what they're worth.
"If our economy struggles to get back on its feet, you're going to have companies that are going to find temp workers — i.e. workers that provide them maximum flexibility with minimum payment and compensation — to be very attractive. And what we want to avoid is the exploitation that would come with it."
This segment aired on August 6, 2020.
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