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Opinion: Set partisanship aside and do right for Montanans this pandemic holiday

Tully Olson

With the arrival of the holiday season this year, the cardinal rule in Montana shines brighter than ever, like the star on top of my Christmas tree: We help our neighbors and community in trying times of need.

A slight wave as two cars pass on the highway isn’t just a friendly greeting to a stranger, but a promise that if I break down in a blizzard outside Two Dot, I won’t be stranded alone for long. And if I’ve been blessed to earn well and cover rent and bills, I know I’m not the only one tipping twenty, thirty, forty percent to a waiter, delivery driver or barista.

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” Charles Dickens wrote in the timely classic, A Christmas Carol, referring to small, sickly Tiny Tim and his cheerfully exclamation, “God Bless us, everyone!”Amidst these days of such hardship and pain, I can’t help but ponder what the story of Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit has to say.

By the time the year is over, the CARES ACT will expire. 12 million unemployed Americans will lose unemployment benefits the day after Christmas, all of which will result in millions of Americans falling into poverty. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which supports more than 7 million people, also ends the day after Christmas.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program allows independent contractors, the self-employed and gig workers to qualify for payments. It also opens up the program to those who can’t work because of the pandemic–if they or family members are ill, quarantining, or their children’s schools are closed.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides 13 weeks of federal benefits to those who run out of state support, ends on December 26. Paid family leave is set to expire on December 31 and relief funds for state and local governments are set to expire by December 30.

What a Merry Christmas, indeed.

2020 has been a far cry from your classic, uplifting Christmas tale. Many horrifying stories of people being forced to work under downright inhumane conditions have been brought to light. Meat plant workers learned their managers bet on how many of them would be infected by COVID-19, while coworkers fell ill and died.

Doctors, nurses, and support staff work countless hours without clinically required PPE, reusing masks and gloves, wearing garbage bags as gowns. Frontline workers on hourly wages–and their families–are a host of modern day Crachits. States are being asked to spend billions distributing the vaccine, while being forced to cut education spending.

We don’t need a fairy tale or a Christmas miracle. We just need leadership. We just need Mitch McConnell, Steve Daines and their allies to stop blocking bipartisan COVID relief. We need them to set aside their ideology to make sure that Montanans who are unemployed are able to avoid eviction until they get back on their feet, that hungry families are able to get food assistance, that people depending on services provided by a state or town aren’t left out in the cold and that everyone has access to quality, affordable health care during this public health crisis.

After all of this is over, let’s remember this Christmas. I hope we remember all of the leaders that set partisanship aside and just did the right thing for everyone. If not, then I know we’ll remember who deserves coal in their stocking next year

Tully Olson is the executive director of Big Sky 55+, an organization that seeks to organize Montanans 55 and older around public policy.