WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump Wednesday signed a measure to ensure paid sick leave for workers and widen coronavirus testing after its passage in the Senate.
Now, Congress is crafting its next emergency relief package: one that would provide checks of $1,000 or more for Americans and financial lifelines for businesses socked by the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the economy and upending daily life.
Senators overwhelmingly supported a House bill that covers the cost of all coronavirus testing, expands federal food programs serving low-income seniors and needy families, and provides paid sick leave for workers forced to stay at home.
The vote was passed 90-8.
The bill, Families First Coronavirus Response Act, would:
- Offer two weeks of paid sick and family leave to many American workers who have been forced to stay home because of COVID-19 or who have children whose schools have closed. Workers will get 100% of their normal salary.
- Provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to many of those who have children whose schools have closed. Workers would get about 67% of their normal salary for this period.
- Bolster unemployment insurance protections.
- Provide free testing for the coronavirus for those who need it.
- Boost food assistance (SNAP) for needy families and federal funding for Medicaid.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly voted for the bill the House passed Saturday, saying that despite burdens the sick leave provisions place on small businesses, it was “a very important step” to help families confront the intensifying pandemic.
But the Kentucky Republican also said work has already begun with the Trump administration on another emergency package, the centerpiece of which is likely to be direct payments to Americans that Trump has promoted as a way to get money into the hands of consumers quickly and rescue the beleaguered economy.
“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Tuesday, although he did not say how big those checks might be. Utah Republican Mitt Romney has suggested a one-time payment of $1,000.
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The upcoming bill also is expected to help major industries besieged by a widespread shutdown of the economy, such as the airlines, and help small businesses including restaurants who are being forced to close around the country but find themselves having to provide mandated paid leave under the Families First bill.
Democrats said federal aid included in the Families First bill will alleviate the sting to those businesses.
McConnell said Wednesday that while he was eager to help small businesses shoulder new sick leave requirements, he wasn’t sure how long it would take to iron out the next relief package.
“Just how long it will take to get through these steps is unclear,” McConnell said on the floor after the vote. “But as everyone knows, we are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said negotiations on the next phase of relief are gearing up.
“The House and Senate are already hard at work on the third bill in the House’s Families First agenda, which will take bold, historic action on behalf of America’s workers and families,” she said in a statement after the Senate’s vote. “This bill will be crafted in consultation with the public health, labor, non-profit and business communities, so that we can deliver the most effective, evidence-based response.
The crisis has already tanked the stock market, forced business to close and led to the lay off thousands of workers across the country.
Trump said he is invoking the Defense Production Act, which allows the administration to expedite and expand the supply of resources. Trump did not say specifically what powers he would execute, but the act could allow him to step up production of respirators and other medical equipment.
Airlines, which Trump and other lawmakers have touted as an industry vital to America’s recovery, would likely get a boost as well, though it’s not clear whether that help would come in the form of loans or grants.
“Before this current public health crisis, U.S. airlines were transporting a record 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo each day,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of the trade association representing major airlines said in a statement before Wednesday’s vote. “Today, carriers are burning through cash as cancellations far outpace new bookings for U.S. carriers, planes are only 20-30% full and new bookings are implying 70-80 percent declines in traffic even as airlines make dramatic cuts in capacity – and this is getting worse each day with no end in sight.”
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GOP senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine also have a introduced a $300 billion small business emergency economic relief plan that will help small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic make payroll and cover expenses.
And McConnell said small businesses who have just been saddled with new sick leave mandates under the Families First bill will need some help as a result.
“Everyone agrees that workers need relief … but small businesses need relief as well,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday before the vote. “This is literally the worst time in living memory to pile even more burdens and costs on to small business which are themselves fighting to stay alive unless we back it up with major assistance.”
Democrats have already signaled they’ll be looking to expand sick leave for workers in the next bill as well. That’s likely to be a stumbling block with Republicans who control the Senate.
A proposal from Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson to amend the Families First bill by replacing sick leave with unemployment insurance was defeated on the floor along party lines.