A look at the first federal policy steps to combat coronavirus, address economic impact

Clark Goldenrod
Mar 26, 2020
The federal government has begun to respond to the coronavirus with legislation over the past few weeks. The first was appropriations earlier this month to increase funding for testing for coronavirus and lowering costs for related medical treatments. And last week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which includes several provisions to support individuals, families, employers, and communities impacted by the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19.   

We’ve laid out in an earlier blog the importance of strong policy action at all levels of government to address the public health emergency, support the economic security of our Minnesota neighbors, and prevent a more serious economic downturn.  

In case you’re feeling overwhelmed, here are a few components of the Families First Coronavirus Response bill, which include:  
  • Emergency paid sick leave, which requires two weeks of paid sick leave, paid at the employee’s regular rate, be provided to workers who need to quarantine or seek a diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus. It also requires payment of two weeks leave at two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate to care for a family member for those purposes, or to care for a child whose school has closed or child care provider is unavailable due to the coronavirus. Update: The CARES Act, the federal economic stimulus plan signed into law on March 27, added a maximum amount of what employers must pay to their workers of $511 per day.

    This leave applies to public employers of all sizes and private employers with fewer than 500 employees, although businesses with fewer than 50 employees can seek an exemption. For employers with existing sick time policies, the new emergency sick time is in addition to any employer provided sick leave. As part of this legislation, the federal government will provide a payroll tax credit to employers to cover the cost of the paid leave.  

  • Emergency family and medical leave, which expands the workers who can take paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. After the first 10 days (during which the federal emergency sick leave may be used), employees will receive a benefit from their employers of up to 10 more weeks at two-thirds of the employee’s usual pay. This leave is only available for workers who are caring for a child due to COVID-19 related closing of school or other care facility. Update: The CARES Act added a cap on what employers must pay to their workers of $200 per day for family leave.

    This leave would apply to private employers with fewer than 500 employees. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can seek an exemption. Additionally, employees have to have been working at their job for at least 30 days. As part of this legislation, the federal government will provide a payroll tax credit to employers to cover the cost of family and medical leave.  

    More information for employers about the new sick leave and family and medical leave is available from the U.S. Department of Labor, and information about the payroll tax credits is available from the IRS

  • Unemployment Insurance (UI) expansion, which would both increase funding for UI and support improvements to the program. The bill provides emergency grants to states totaling $1 billion in 2020 to help pay UI benefits for the influx of workers who cannot work due to coronavirus or public health measures aimed at controlling its spread. The U.S. Secretary of Labor will also provide technical assistance to states that would like to set up work sharing programs. Work sharing allows workers who are facing a potential layoff to share their hours with another employee, and then supplement their reduced income with UI benefits. This system helps businesses retain workers during difficult economic times and makes it easier for workers to return to full-time work when the economy bounces back. Minnesota already has implemented a work sharing component to its UI program.  

  • Food and nutrition supports. The bill includes over $1 billion for various nutrition assistance programs to support people whose lives have been impacted by coronavirus. Among the appropriations are $500 million for Women Infants and Children (WIC), $400 million for local food banks through TEFAP, $250 million for Senior Nutrition, and support for students who would normally receive free and reduced lunches at school. The bill also makes food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more accessible by allowing states to provide emergency SNAP benefits and temporarily lift SNAP time limits for adults without children.  

  • Medicaid funding. The bill temporarily increases the federal matching rate by 6.2 percent for FY 2020 and 2021 for Medicaid, as long as states meet certain coronavirus-related coverage requirements. Medicaid is a joint federal-state government responsibility, and this is a first step in what the federal government needs to be doing to support essential health care services in the states. 

  • These are important first steps, but they fall short of reaching all who are facing economic hardship, and providing the support that states will need to continue to provide essential services as their revenues drop with the economic slowdown. More federal policy action will be needed in the coming days, weeks, and months. In particular, future policy actions need to address the disproportionate harm to communities of color. A history of discriminatory practices in access to opportunity, education, and housing, going back to our earliest days as a nation means that people of color often have much less income and wealth than others.