WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. warned on Monday of a “very dark winter” ahead and called on Congress to pass a large economic stimulus package immediately to help workers, businesses, and state and local governments struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Biden gave his first major policy speech since he won the election after participating in a virtual meeting with business and union leaders, including the chief executives of General Motors, Microsoft, Target and the Gap and the head of the United Auto Workers. The group, meeting over Zoom, discussed how to safely reopen the American economy when virus cases continue to surge across the nation, prompting renewed lockdowns.
The president-elect’s decision to highlight his meeting with labor groups and businesses underscores the immense challenge facing his administration, which will have to contend with a spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, a faltering economic recovery and a public weary of restrictions on everyday life.
Many businesses continue to struggle with reduced activity and are eager to bring workers — and customers — back, while unions continue to insist that corporations don’t needlessly expose workers to risk.
Participants said the discussion, which was closed to reporters, focused heavily on how to keep businesses operating and on workplace safety, including union leaders’ push for enhanced worker protections through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“The majority of the discussion with G.M. was on Covid protocols and the importance of keeping manufacturing running,” said a G.M. official familiar with the discussion. “There’s a lot of interest in how we are working with the U.A.W. to keep the work force safe and keep the plants running.”
Rory Gamble, the president of the autoworkers’ union, said in an interview that he had urged Mr. Biden to make sure OSHA issued “strong enforceable standards” to keep workers safe during the pandemic. Under the Trump administration, OSHA has declined to put out specific coronavirus-related regulations, opting instead for recommendations, and has largely avoided inspecting facilities outside of a few high-risk industries like health care and emergency response.
Mr. Biden sought to project unity among the group, saying, “We all agreed that we want to get the economy back on track, we need our workers to be back on the job by getting the virus under control.” But the United States is “going into a very dark winter,” he said. “Things are going to get much tougher before they get easier.”
To help businesses and workers make it through, Mr. Biden said, Congress needs to quickly pass another round of stimulus, but he offered no hint of the sort of policy compromise that could help break a partisan impasse in Washington over a new round of economic assistance. He instead reaffirmed his support for a $3.4 trillion plan that House Democrats approved in May and that Senate Republicans have rejected for months.
Mr. Biden said he hoped that a dozen or more Republican senators would join Democrats in passing the type of expansive package they approved in the spring. That aid included $1,200 checks to low- and middle-income Americans, new loans for hard-hit small businesses, state and local government assistance, and expanded federal testing and tracing programs.
As Mr. Biden warned of economic darkness, financial markets rallied Monday after the drugmaker Moderna announced that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5 percent effective, fueling hopes that deployment of a highly effective vaccine could hasten the end of the pandemic and its economic damage.
The disconnect highlights the dangers for the economy in the coming months. Rising optimism for a vaccine could breed complacency among lawmakers when it comes to supporting the recovery, which is already losing steam and could be further hindered as critical spending programs expire at year end. It could also encourage individuals to disregard health officials’ warnings against activities that raise the risk of contracting the virus before a vaccine can be widely deployed.
States and cities have already begun to impose new restrictions on economic activity in an effort to tamp down the spread. Chicago announced a new “stay at home” order on Monday and advised residents to avoid travel, keep guests from their homes and cancel Thanksgiving celebrations. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said on Monday that he was pulling an “emergency brake” to stop the state’s reopening plans.
A variety of indicators suggest that the recovery from the depths of the pandemic recession is nowhere near complete and that, in many ways, the economy is stalling or backsliding. Ten million fewer Americans are working now than in February. Supplemental benefits for the unemployed expired months ago, and federally funded benefits for the long-term unemployed are set to run out at year’s end barring congressional action.
Credit card data and other indicators suggest consumers began to pull back spending this month as infection, hospitalization and death rates from the virus surge nationwide.
Mr. Trump has refused to concede the results of this month’s presidential election, when he was defeated by Mr. Biden. But in the weeks after the vote, he has done little to champion additional stimulus for the recovery or mitigate the toll that the new wave of infections is exacting on the economy.
Widespread distribution of a vaccine that would allow Americans to resume anything close to normal levels of travel, dining out and other types of spending on services that have been crushed by the pandemic is most likely months away. Economists continue to call for a new and immediate round of aid from Congress to help people and businesses weather the difficult time before the rebound is complete.
There is little chance that lawmakers will use the lame-duck session after the election to approve anything close to the $3.4 trillion House bill that Mr. Biden championed on Monday. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has called for a “highly targeted” bill, and his Republican caucus has backed a package that would cost around $500 billion.
Republicans suggested that Mr. Biden’s comments had done little to sway them. “I don’t think it’s helpful,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said, adding that Mr. Biden has “plenty to be thinking about right now” besides the scope of the relief package. A deal, Mr. Blunt said, “is less and less likely the more divergent views are out there.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said she did not believe “it was a reasonable ask” for a package close to $3 trillion.
Business leaders in Washington have pressed the sides to compromise. “There’s no advantage for Democrats or Republicans in waiting until the new year,” Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said this month.
Among the business and labor leaders Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke with were Mary T. Barra, chief executive of G.M.; Sonia Syngal, chief executive of the Gap; Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft; Brian Cornell, chairman and chief executive of Target; Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.; Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union; and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Ms. Harris said the group “had an important conversation about the impact that this pandemic has had on workers, especially essential workers, frontline workers, who have risked their own health and the health of their families, and many who have given their own lives to keep us safe and keep our economy running.”
Mr. Trumka told Mr. Biden that the economy needed more investment in personal protective equipment and funding to retrofit businesses and schools so they have better ventilation and can meet social distancing guidelines. He also called for spending on more robust testing and contact tracing to contain the virus.
Mr. Saunders urged Mr. Biden to provide relief for states and cities, saying that when public service workers are laid off, local businesses suffer.
Mr. Cornell told Mr. Biden about the role that the retail industry plays for American consumers and said he hoped the government would provide “clear, consistent guidance around safety, regulations and the future rollout of a coronavirus vaccine.”
Target noted that it had kept its stores and supply chains operating during the pandemic — and that it was steering clear of politics.
Reporting was contributed by Noam Scheiber, Neal E. Boudette, Gillian Friedman and Emily Cochrane.