Congress Is Knitting a Coronavirus Safety Net. It Already Has Big Holes.
The House passed a sweeping virus response bill early Saturday, but Democrats and the Trump administration continued to negotiate through Monday over so-called technical corrections to a $100 billion program in the legislation. That program is meant to offer paid leave to workers infected with the virus or otherwise hurt by it. The negotiations narrowed the program, in part over the administration’s concerns about burdening small businesses, despite objections from some lawmakers and economists.
The changes passed the House late Monday evening, with few lawmakers present or even able to read the legislation before it was approved. A procedural maneuver allows legislation to be approved without the entire chamber present so long as a single lawmaker does not object.
Under those changes, workers affected by the pandemic — as a result of quarantine, caring for a family member, or closed schools and lack of child care — receive two weeks of sick leave. Any paid leave provided after that time is limited to workers with children whose school or child care has been closed. The original legislation offered 10 additional weeks of paid leave at two-thirds pay for all workers affected by the pandemic.
The bill allows exemptions for workers in companies with more than 500 employees or fewer than 50. Under the amended version, health care providers or emergency responders could be declared exempt from receiving the additional paid leave by the Labor secretary, who is now given the discretion to make that decision.
Ms. Boushey said she was alarmed by those changes. “I don’t want my first responder to be sick,” she said, adding that the scope of benefits in the bill for workers who lose their jobs amid the crisis was also inadequate. She and other economists, like Andrew Biggs of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, say the government should effectively make up for the full lost wages of workers who become unemployed, rather than partially doing so. Ms. Boushey said lawmakers should also fully compensate workers whose hours are reduced during the pandemic.
Senate Democrats, including Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, say they will push for expansions of paid leave and unemployment benefits in a new bill, in its early stages on Capitol Hill, that is likely to include $1 trillion or more of economic stimulus, like direct payments to workers.
Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, introduced another paid-leave bill on Tuesday along with other Democratic lawmakers, as part of an effort to expand upon those provisions in a third coronavirus relief package still under discussion.
“How do we make sure that people will stay home and not spread the virus?” said Ms. Murray, whose state has been a center of the outbreak in the United States. “Either we give people the means to stay home or this will continue to spread.”
In a sign that the debate defies traditional partisan lines, the conservative group Heritage Action for America said on Tuesday that the House’s paid-leave plan should be expanded to more workers.
But business groups and their advocates continue to raise concerns about the paid-leave efforts.
Some small business groups have opposed the plan. “The main thing I’ve heard, and it’s almost been in unanimity among small business owners,” said Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, “is that they don’t like the structure, putting the onus out of the gate onto small business owners.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, who supports the package put forward by the House, said that “there’s concerns about, say, doctor’s offices and health care workers.”
“If the requirements are for paid sick leave, how are you going to move that in with essential workers? I think that’s one thing,” she said. “I’m sure there’s some questions on the mandate aspect of it, and how it will actually work.”
“I think there was an admission in the room — and probably in the whole building — that the bureaucracy of trying to figure the quickest and easiest and less painful way to direct dollars to people always takes longer than what people would think,” she added, speaking after a closed lunch with Senate Republicans. “So I think that’s a source of concern for everybody.”
Others raised concerns that workers would leave their jobs if the program was too generous, jeopardizing business health.
“I don’t like the family leave setup,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “I think we should have gone through the unemployment insurance route. We should have said to any company out there, any worker, that if you can’t work because of the coronavirus you are going to get your check.”
“My focus is not giving people a check from the government,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “My focus is to make sure you get your paycheck from your employer.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.
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