On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed (and President Trump signed) the second of at least three anticipated emergency packages designed to respond to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus.
In line with the version passed by the House on Tuesday, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides working people with critical support and protections to weather the crisis, yet the package left several gaping holes that place workers at risk and should be addressed in future measures.
Here’s what the bill does and doesn’t do for working people:
- Provides coverage for COVID-19 testing for all workers, even those without health insurance, and boosts assistance for state Medicaid programs. Once more tests become available, the bill ensures that workers without health insurance will still be able to receive the test — a critical step to ensuring mass testing, which most public health experts agree is essential to stopping spread of the virus.
Additionally, the package increases federal support to state Medicaid programs by 6.2%. This will mean that the federal government will provide North Carolina with an estimated $900 million to cover health care services for those currently enrolled in Medicaid.
- Extends emergency unemployment insurance. The package provides an immediate $1 billion to the states to support an anticipated massive surge in jobless claims over the next few months. In addition, $500 million is targeted to states that have already have an exceptionally low rate of unemployed people participating the program. Given that North Carolina has lowest participation rate in the country (9.8%), our workers will especially benefit from this provision. The bill also includes $500 million to support state unemployment insurance administrative actions to combat the crisis, including waiving work-search requirements and waiting periods.
- Provides emergency paid sick days and paid family leave to some workers. At the heart of the Families First bill lies the recognition that requiring sick employees to come to work will only hasten the spread of the virus to their co-workers and customers. As a result, the bill provides 80 hours of paid sick leave to all public employees and many private sector workers to care for themselves, family members, and deal with quarantine, school closures, and self-isolation.
- Unfortunately, however, the bill fails to extend paid sick days protections to enough workers due to two critical loopholes. First, the nation’s largest employers— those with more than 500 workers (think Amazon, McDonalds, and Walmart) are excluded from the requirement to provide paid sick days to their employees. In addition, the US Department of Labor has the discretion to offer a hardship waiver to small employers — those businesses with fewer than 50 employees — and any employer involved in healthcare and first responder activities. In effect, this could exclude up to 80 percent of the population from getting paid sick days just as COVID-19 begins to escalate.
- Provides paid family medical leave to some workers, but not very many. In an undeniably positive step, the bill provides 12 weeks of paid, job-protected family leave, but only for those workers in caregiving roles and related to school and daycare closures. Even more challenging is that the first 10 days of leave are unpaid, forcing workers to exhaust their paid sick days before being able to take family leave. After two weeks of leave, employees will begin receiving at least two-thirds of their usual pay from their employer, up to a cap of $200 per day, or $10,000 total over the entire leave period.
- Provides food and nutrition supplements to low-income working families. The bill expands critical nutrition assistance to help cover the costs for food for children who would have received it at school if their school hadn’t closed because of the pandemic. Additionally, the package also suspends food assistance time limits for unemployed and job-seeking adults without children in the home.
It also reduces barriers to enrollment in nutrition assistance programs for low-income women with infants. This provision is particularly important because state law in North Carolina prohibits the state from seeking a waiver of the time limit. By waiving the time limit at the federal level, people who have been blocked from receiving assistance in putting food on the table will be able to access food.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act takes a critical step toward cushioning North Carolina workers from the economic and public health impacts of this dangerous and rapidly spreading virus. But much, much more is needed to adequately protect working people. As Congress works to develop its Phase 3 response package, closing the paid leave loopholes remains a top priority.
Allan Freyer is the director of the Workers’ Rights project at the North Carolina Justice Center.