Week Ending March 20, 2020

Congress Working on Rapid Response to Growing COVID-19 Threat

  • Second Emergency Response Package to the Coronavirus Pandemic Passes
  • Harmful Amendment to Coronavirus Response Bill is Defeated
  • Senate Republicans Release $1 Trillion Stimulus Package

Second Emergency Response Package to the Coronavirus Pandemic Passes

After lengthy negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Congress passed a second coronavirus response bill, the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (H.R. 6201), that will continue to protect Americans and their families from the coronavirus health crisis. Early on March 14, the House bill passed by a 363 to 40 vote. Technical corrections were made that drastically limited which workers can receive paid leave, including health care and other front-line workers. The Senate passed the second coronavirus bill on Wednesday by a vote of 90-8 and the president signed it into law. Congress is already at work on a third bill, which AFSCME is working to ensure includes fiscal stabilization for states and municipalities, as well as health and safety protections and fair treatment for all workers.

  • Paid Leave: Unfortunately, changes made to the bill make the second measure even worse than the bill that passed the House on March 14 with respect to the paid leave provisions. The final version incorporated technical changes that further undermine the health and safety of health care workers and emergency responders. As revised, this legislation includes up to 10 days of paid sick leave for workers to care for themselves or for certain family members because of COVID-19. In addition, it limits eligible workers’ access to two weeks of unpaid family and medical leave (FMLA), followed by up to 10 weeks of fully or partially paid FMLA only to care for a son or daughter under age 18 because of the closure of their school or daycare provider. Consequently, this bill leaves many workers out in the cold and puts even more at higher risk for contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19. While all government employers are covered, it limits the emergency paid sick leave and emergency FMLA to employers with 500 or fewer employees. It also allows the secretary of Labor to exempt small businesses with 50 or fewer workers from even offering FMLA if it poses an “undue hardship.” Both public and private health care providers can opt their health care workers out of even these emergency paid leave provisions. In all, the bill has major flaws. It stops short of covering all workers. That is still a huge problem for economic security and risks the lives of workers on the front lines who are helping to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public.
  • Additional Federal Medicaid Funds: The federal contribution supporting each state’s Medicaid program would increase by another 6.2% under the bill as passed. This $36 billion increase in federal funds will help states to address immediate public health needs and maintain Medicaid benefits to vulnerable populations during the pandemic. However, it is less than what states will need as state budgets will be impacted by unemployment and lost revenues from businesses closing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The additional federal support does not apply to state costs for the Medicaid expansion population. This is a problem because roughly 4 million people who are on Medicaid through the expansion are at higher risk for serious illness due to their ages or chronic conditions. Because states, unlike the federal government, must balance their budgets even during a pandemic or recession, AFSCME is urging Congress to expand immediate relief for states’ strapped Medicaid programs and plan for an automatic increase in federal support for state Medicaid triggered by an economic downturn in the state. The Senate-passed bill also increased federal funds and Medicaid allotment for Puerto Rico and other territories. As with states, Congress must provide needed fiscal relief for Puerto Rico, too.
  • COVID-19 Testing: Identifying who has and who does not have the virus is important to protecting everyone. Cost should not be a barrier to getting tested for the virus. Whether people rely on their job, Medicaid, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act for their health care coverage, the bill requires COVID-19 testing to be covered at no cost. States will also have a new Medicaid option to cover testing for uninsured individuals, with federal funds picking up this cost. This new Medicaid option will not cover undocumented immigrants. But we can’t stop at just testing. AFSCME is pressing for no-cost sharing when people need treatment because of the virus.
  • Unemployment Insurance (UI): This is an important safety net that helps protect families from hardship and stabilize our economy during uncertain times. The bill provides emergency administrative funding for state agencies to staff up in order to assist more people who will be laid off due to the coronavirus. This response bill authorizes $1 billion in unemployment insurance (UI) funding. The first $500 million would be based on the current distribution formula and would automatically flow to states that have increased claims attributable to the outbreak. The second $500 million would flow to states that take certain COVID-19-related emergency steps, including waiving the work search requirement; waiving the waiting period to get benefits to workers as fast as possible during this crisis; and ensuring that employers understand that their experience rating – or UI tax rate – will not be affected by outbreak-related claims.

What You Need to Know: AFSCME is advocating for additional funding to state and local governments in the form of robust direct general assistance, an enhanced Medicaid match, administrative funding for UI and other safety-net programs so that state agencies will be able to handle an increased caseload. AFSCME is also pressing Congress to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect all private and public health care workers and others at high risk for exposure to COVID-19 through their jobs. This protection is particularly important since the emergency paid leave provisions leave health care workers out in the cold.

Harmful Amendment to Coronavirus Response Bill is Defeated

The Senate, during consideration of the aid bill, rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), which would have removed the paid sick days and paid leave provisions in the House-passed “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (H.R. 6201) and replaced it with an unemployment insurance (UI)-based parental leave program that would have depleted state UI trust funds a time of rising unemployment. AFSCME opposed this harmful amendment and supported Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) substitute amendment, which  would have given all workers paid sick and family leave for the next two years. The Senate rejected the Murray amendment.

What You Need to Know: AFSCME will continue to push for paid sick and family leave for all workers and other sound public policy ideas that protect front-line workers, including health care professionals and emergency responders, as well as ideas that put vulnerable communities and their families first.

Senate Republicans Release $1 Trillion Stimulus Package

Congress is already is working on a third coronavirus package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed an estimated $1 trillion package. His plan has several parts. First, it would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in federally guaranteed loans to businesses. Second, it would provide direct payments to hundreds of millions of Americans via a tax credit of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child that starts to phase out at annual incomes of $75,000 for individual filers and $150,000 for joint filers. Third, it would provide targeted loans to key sectors and industries of national importance, including the airlines. It would also allow employers to delay paying their employer payroll taxes until 2021 and simultaneously hold harmless the key trust funds, including Social Security. Fourth, it would provide assistance to address the health care crisis. The bill also expands the small business hardship exemption from paid sick day requirements to include all family care (previously this pertained only to school closures). 

What You Need to Know: McConnell says he wants Congress to consider his plan as soon as possible. Any package will need 60 votes in the Senate. Democratic leaders were critical of the Republican plan, saying it tilted too much toward helping businesses and did not focus enough on people who lose work because of the coronavirus outbreak. Democrats are working on their own plan and are expected to press for their ideas when the McConnell bill is debated. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed a $750 billion plan that will provide $400 billion to address the health care crisis, fund $350 billion for social service and safety net programs, and strengthen policies that protect and aid affected workers. This includes funding for public health systems, public mass transit, public housing, child care providers, and health care workers. In contrast, the Trump administration has been advocating a $1.3 trillion plan with direct cash payments upwards of $1,000 per person to all Americans. While President Donald Trump appears to favor a top down sectoral approach that bails out affected businesses and corporations (e.g. airlines, hotels), AFSCME and progressive allies are focused on helping affected workers, health care providers and caregivers, and provide needed aid to states and localities.

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