Labor & Employment Law Daily Federal ‘Families First Coronavirus Response Act’ would react comprehensively to COVID-19
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Monday, March 16, 2020

Federal ‘Families First Coronavirus Response Act’ would react comprehensively to COVID-19

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

Among many other things, the legislation would provide emergency paid leave and require OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for workers in the health care industry.

On March 11, House Democrats introduced the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” with the aim of bolstering the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and addressing the severe impacts of the coronavirus on Americans’ personal safety and financial security. The bill, H.R. H.R. 6201, is expected to move on a rapid track; indeed, the House passed the bill early March 14.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The legislation would build on the $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending package enacted into law on March 6. That package, consisting of entirely of new funds, included support for state and local health agencies, vaccine and treatment development, and loans for affected small businesses to lessen the economic blow of this public health emergency.

Going further, H.R. 6201 would, according to sponsors:

  • Provide paid leave;
  • Establish free coronavirus testing;
  • Support strong unemployment benefits;
  • Expand food assistance for vulnerable children and families;
  • Protect frontline health workers; and
  • Provide additional funding to states for the ongoing economic consequences of the pandemic.

Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020. According to a bill summary, H.R. 6102 would implement the “Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020,” to amend the Social Security Act and create a new federal emergency paid leave benefits program.

Emergency leave day. The legislation would provide for an “emergency leave day” as a day in which an individual is unable to work due to one of the following qualifying reasons related to COVID-19:

  • The worker has a current diagnosis of COVID-19.
  • The worker is quarantined (including self-imposed quarantine), at the instruction of a health care provider, employer, or government official, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • The worker is caring for another person who has COVID-19 or who is under a quarantine related to COVID-19.
  • The worker is caring for a child or other individual who is unable to care for them self due to the COVID-19-related closing of their school, childcare facility, or other care program.

Emergency paid leave benefits. The legislation would also create a new federal emergency paid leave benefit program under which eligible workers would receive a benefit for a month (up to three months) in which they must take 14 or more days of leave from work due to the qualifying COVID-19-related reasons. The days in which an individual receives pay from their employer (regular wages, sick pay, or other paid time off) or unemployment compensation would notcount as leave days.

Program details include the following:

  • The benefit amount would be 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.
  • The benefits would 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.
  • Benefits could be paid retroactively, and applications could be filed up to six months after enactment.
  • Applications for benefits would be taken online, by phone, or by mail. Individuals would not visit SSA field offices to apply.
  • Payments in most cases would be issued electronically.
  • Applicants would be required to attest that they meet the criteria for eligibility; existing penalties for fraud or misrepresentation with regard to Social Security benefits would apply to the emergency paid leave program.

Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal and Family Care Act. The legislation would also implement the “Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal and Family Care Act” to require that all employers permit 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.

This portion of H.R. 6201 would also:

  • Ensure that paid sick leave covers days when a worker’s child’s school is closed due to a public health emergency, when the worker’s employer is closed due to public health emergency, or if the worker or a worker’s family member is quarantined or isolated due to a public health emergency;
  • Reimburse small 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;
  • Enable construction employees to receive sick pay based on hours they work for multiple contractors; and
  • Make 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.

Emergency Temporary Standard. Among other things, H.R. 6201 would mandate that OSHA issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) within 30 days, requiring employers within the health care sector, and any other sectors designated by OSHA or CDC to be at elevated risk, to develop and implement a comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plan to protect health care workers from exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

The new ETS would be based on the CDC’s 2007 “Guideline for Isolation Precautions: Preventing Transmission of Infectious Agents in Healthcare Settings,” which was issued to protect health care workers against SARS. The new ETS could not be less protective than the infectious disease precautions for novel pathogens issued by any OSHA state plan. OSHA would also be required to issue a permanent health and safety standard, which under the Occupational Safety and Health Act must be issued six months after an ETS has been issued.

“The coronavirus has officially reached a pandemic level, with a rising death toll and deepening impacts on workers and families in communities across the United States,” Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a press release. “While the $8.3 billion coronavirus supplemental we enacted into law was a crucial step that stabilized our public health system, more support for working families is clearly needed. House Democrats’ new legislation puts working families first by providing new resources and more protections as our country faces this public health emergency.”

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