Congress Working on Bill to Bring Financial Relief During Coronavirus Pandemic

Note: This piece was first published on March 16, 2020 on the Channel 27 News & Entertainment, Grant County’s website.

March 16, 2020

by Chaylee Brock

Early Saturday morning, the House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which now heads to the Senate on Monday to face deliberation and votes.

The bill “provides paid leave, establishes free testing, protects public health workers, and provides important benefits to children and families,” all of which is now needed, given that businesses and schools are shuttering their doors in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Surprisingly, the bill, supported by President Trump, passed the House on a bipartisan basis, which is almost never seen in today’s political climate. The final vote tally was 363-40. (You can see how the individual House members voted here:

As stated by CBS News, this bill “addresses the potentially devastating economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, including measures on free testing and paid sick leave.”

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, made the following statement on Friday: “The American people expect and deserve a coordinated, science-based and whole of government response. [The legislation is] focused directly on providing support for America’s families who must be our first priority.”

As explained in an article from CBS News, the bill addresses five main areas of concern for Americans during this global pandemic:

  • Expanded funding for food security programs
  • Emergency family and sick leave
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Free coronavirus testing
  • Medicaid funding

This article will break down all five of these areas of concern, to help you understand what Congress is doing and what help may eventually be available.

Food Security:

This bill would provide additional funding for programs such as WIC (Women Infants and Children), which provides pregnant women and mothers with small children with money for food, and TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides money to food banks to help low-income Americans during this time.

The bill also allows for states to implement changes to SNAP ( Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. “food stamps”), which could now assist households with children who are eligible for either free or reduced school lunches but are unable to attain those meals due to school closings. The Senior Nutrition Program would also receive $250 million to help deliver 25 million more meals to seniors who rely on the Senior Nutrition Program for their daily food intake.

Emergency Paid Leave:

While the bill was being created, Nancy Pelosi met with Treasury Secretary, Stephen Mnuchin, to discuss how to best assist families who find themselves without work or a paycheck in the near future. Their ultimate conclusion was to create the Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020.

This section creates a new federal emergency paid leave benefit program. Eligible workers will receive a benefit for a month (up to three months) in which they must take 14 or more days of leave from their work due to the qualifying COVID-19-related reasons. Days when an individual receives pay from their employer (regular wages, sick pay, or other paid time off) or unemployment compensation do not count as leave days for purposes of this benefit.

The bill says that these benefits will be paid out by the Social Security Administration. Here are the specifications, as laid out by the bill:

  • Benefit amount: Two-thirds of the individual’s average monthly earnings (based on the most recent year of wages or self-employment income for which records are readily available), up to a cap of $4,000.
  • Program and benefit period: The benefits will be available for leave that occurs from January 19, 2020 (the date of the first U.S. COVID-19 diagnosis) through one year after the bill’s enactment.
  • Retroactive benefits: Benefits can be paid retroactively, and applications can be filed up to 6 months after enactment.
  • Application: Applications will be taken online, by phone, or by mail. Individuals will not visit SSA field offices to apply. Payments will in most cases be issued electronically.
  • Program integrity: Applicants must attest that they meet the criteria for eligibility and existing penalties for fraud or misrepresentation with regard to Social Security benefits are applied to the federal emergency paid leave benefits program.

The program will operate in coordination with other relevant benefits and leave programs, including:

  • Protection of existing benefit rights: Existing benefit rights are protected, including any rights to State or local paid leave benefits, and greater benefits are allowed including under a contract, collective bargaining agreement, or other employment benefit program.
  • Reduction based on receipt of state or private paid leave: Benefit amounts are offset (reduced) dollar-for-dollar by the amount of any state or private paid leave benefit the individual also receives.
  • Reimbursement grants to States: States will be reimbursed for the total amount of these offsets that are due to state-run or state-mandated paid leave programs.
  • No effect on eligibility for SSI: Benefits paid under this program do not count as income or resources for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Further, the legislation for emergency sick days

  • Requires all employers to allow employees to gradually accrue seven days of paid sick leave and to provide an additional 14 days available immediately in the event of any public health emergency, including the current coronavirus crisis;
  • Requires all employers to provide an additional 14 days of paid sick leave, available immediately at the beginning of a public health emergency, including the current coronavirus crisis;
  • Ensures paid sick leave covers days when your child’s school is closed due to a public health emergency, when your employer is closed due to public health emergency, or if you or a family member is quarantined or isolated due to a public health emergency;
  • Reimburses small businesses—defined as businesses with 50 or fewer employees—for the costs of providing the 14 days of additional paid sick leave used by employees during a public health emergency;
  • Enables construction employees to receive sick pay based on hours they work for multiple contractors; and
  • Makes the bill effective immediately so that employees in areas covered under a qualifying Public Health Emergency, upon the date of enactment, can take 14 days of paid sick leave in order to address COVID-19.

Unemployment Insurance:

Under specific conditions, a person may be eligible to receive unemployment insurance while they are unable to work due to the coronavirus. The Families First bill includes a section that explains how $1 billion dollars will be set aside to help people receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

According to the bill:

$500 million would be used to provide immediate additional funding to all states for staffing, technology, systems, and other administrative costs, so long as they met basic requirements about ensuring access to earned benefits for eligible workers.

As for the remaining money allotted to unemployment:

$500 million would be reserved for emergency grants to states which experienced at least a10 percent increase in unemployment. Those states would be eligible to receive an additional grant, in the same amount as the initial grant, to assist with costs related to the unemployment spike, and would also be required to take steps to temporarily ease eligibility requirements that might be limiting access to UI during the COVID-19 outbreak, like work search requirements, required waiting periods, and requirements to increase employer UI taxes if they have high layoff rates. Depending on the state, those actions might require changes in state law, or might just require changes in state policy. This section also provides temporary federal flexibility regarding those UI restrictions which are also in federal law.

Free Testing, Treatment:

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires private health insurance providers to make sure no American with health insurance will pay out of pocket for any testing related to the coronavirus. The bill says health insurance providers must pay for “diagnostic testing, including the cost of a provider, urgent care center and emergency room visits in order to receive testing.”

It requires Medicare Part B, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, and CHIP to cover everything related to coronavirus testing, as well, so the beneficiary will not be responsible for any of the cost.

Those without insurance who need to be tested for coronavirus will be reimbursed for any cost accrued for diagnostic testing by the National Disaster Medical System.

Medicaid Funding:

According to this bill, there will be a “temporary increase to states’ federal medical assistance percentage for the duration of the public health emergency” created by coronavirus.

Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (or FMAP) “are used in determining the amount of Federal matching funds for State expenditures for assistance payments for certain social services, and State medical and medical insurance expenditures.”

The provision about FMAP in this piece of legislation allows for states to spend more in Medicaid money, to help test and treat those affected by coronavirus, while knowing that the federal government will increase their contribution percentages to offset the spending increases made during this emergency.

States are also being instructed in this bill to not change eligibility requirements for Medicaid as long as we are in this national emergency.

In short, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act is a lengthy piece of legislation, intended to assist families who are sure to fall on hard times as the coronavirus continues to spread and have an impact on thousands of Americans nationwide.

As stated previously, this bill passed the House with bipartisan support, and it is now headed to the Senate for Mitch McConnell to consider and put up for a vote. While President Trump has said he fully supports this bill, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News on Sunday morning that he is concerned that this bill could die in the Senate, or, at the very least, critical time could be killed while Senators try to amend the bill to their liking.

“We hope they pass this bill. If not, we will work with the Senate on any minor changes we need.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faced a lot of criticism for allowing the Senate to recess over the weekend. Many House members claimed the Senate should have worked throughout the weekend on this piece of legislation to bring relief to Americans as soon as possible.

The bill is said to be the Senate’s top priority starting Monday, as McConnell referred to passing the bill as an “urgent” matter.

You can read the House’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act in its entirety on the House of Representatives government website.