Washington governor signs bill to help workers, businesses

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks before signing the first bill to be signed into law during the 2021 legislative session, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A bill that allocates $2.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding in areas ranging from vaccine administration to schools resuming in-person learning was approved by the Washington Legislature Wednesday and now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

The measure, which passed the House earlier this month, received a 47-2 vote in the Senate. Because it has an emergency clause, it will take effect immediately upon Inslee’s signature, which is likely to occur next week.

“This bill is not going to solve our problems, but it is a partnership with Congress,” said Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes. “It’s a strategic first step to helping Washingtonians out, helping our businesses make it through this really tough winter and getting us back on our feet strong.”

Under the bill, $668 million will be allocated to schools as they move toward welcoming students back to the classroom. An additional $618 million will go toward vaccine administration, contact tracing and testing, and $365 million will go toward rental assistance to help renters and landlords affected by the pandemic.

The bill also allocates $240 million to small business assistance grants that will be administered through the state Department of Commerce and $70 million to assist undocumented immigrants impacted by the pandemic who do not qualify for federal or state assistance. An additional $50 million is for grants to help childcare businesses stay open and expand capacity, and $26 million is for food assistance.

Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen said that he was voting in favor of the bill, saying the money needed to be spent to help those affected, but criticized the fact that lawmakers were not called back into special session last year to address some of these issues earlier.

“This is a post-disaster operation now,” he said.

It’s the second pandemic-related bill sent to Inslee’s desk as lawmakers work through a 105-day legislative session. On Monday, Inslee signed a measure that increases the minimum weekly benefit for unemployed workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and prevents a dramatic increase in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

The Senate on Wednesday also passed a measure that requires health benefit plans to reimburse health care providers a set amount for personal protective equipment for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill was unanimously approved by the chamber and now heads to the House for consideration.

There have been more than 307,000 cases of COVID-19 in Washington state, and more than 4,451 deaths.

For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, although long-term effects are unknown. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Margaux Maxwell reports for the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. She can be reached at mmaxwell@yakimaherald.com