Bill Highlight: The Families First Coronavirus Response ActMarch 23, 2020
By Zachary Tashman
On March 18, the Senate passed, and the President signed, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) an emergency package of legislation that guarantees “free coronavirus testing, expands nutrition security programs, establishes paid sick leave, enhances unemployment insurance, and increases federal Medicaid funding.” Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have strongly indicated that this legislation is the first in a series of bills that will be introduced in the coming weeks to address the economic and health impacts of the coronavirus. This article examines the human services-related provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), as well as makes recommendations for further steps Congress can take to build the health and well-being of families throughout this crisis.
The FFCRA gives states broad temporary flexibility and authority to supplement and modify numerous nutrition programs during this public health emergency. As more schools close, resulting from the coronavirus epidemic, millions of children are at risk of losing access to the school breakfasts and lunches that support their health and well-being. The FFCRA allows the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve state plans to provide food assistance through Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to families with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals if not for their schools being closed due to coronavirus. The law gives the USDA additional authority to issue waivers to states to expand access to the child nutrition programs during school closures. This includes issuing waivers that reduce paperwork for states and help local governments and community organizations quickly adapt and provide meals, waivers so states can be reimbursed for increased programmatic costs and waivers to allow child and adult care centers to operate as non-congregate food distribution sites.
In addition to expanding access to child nutrition programs, the FFCRA suspends the work and work training requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) during this crisis and authorizes states to apply for temporary waivers for households to receive the maximum monthly SNAP benefit amount. The law also appropriates emergency funding for nutrition programs:
- $500 million in additional funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to provide access to nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women or mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off due to the coronavirus.
- $400 million in additional funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program to assist local food banks in meeting projected increased demand.
- $250 million in additional funding for the Administration for Community Living’s senior nutrition program to provide approximately 25 million additional home-delivered meals to seniors.
National Assembly’s Position: Food represents the building blocks of health and well-being for people of all ages. In the short term, the FFCRA does much to provide essential nutritional benefits to families that will be the first ones to experience food insecurity as a result of the coronavirus crisis. However, as economic realities set in and more families feel the impact of reduced incomes, Congress will need to act to provide additional resources to federal nutrition programs, particularly SNAP. A Congressional Budget Office report found that expanding SNAP benefits is one of the three most effective “automatic stabilizers” during a period of economic contraction. The National Assembly urges Congress to take action in its next round of legislation to expand the total benefit allotment eligible to qualifying families. Additionally, the administration should also take immediate action by reversing its recent rule that limits state waivers to provide SNAP benefits for adults aged 18-50 who aren’t working or in training 20 hours per week.
Though Congress has temporarily suspended work requirements for the duration of the national public health emergency, the negative economic effects of coronavirus will linger long after the immediate crisis is over, and millions of adults will need nutritional assistance as they try to reenter the workforce.
Paid Sick, Family, and Medical Leave
The FFCRA requires employers to provide their employees with a minimum of two weeks of paid sick leave and ten weeks of paid (with an additional first two weeks unpaid) family and medical leave (FML) for coronavirus related reasons. Paid sick leave can be used regardless of time on the job, but paid FML is only available for employees that have been on the employer’s payroll for 30 days or more. Employers are required to provide eligible employees with full regular salary for days taken off for personal sick leave, and at least two-thirds salary for employees caring for a loved one. This benefit is capped at a maximum of $511 per day for an employee with COVID-19 and $200 per day for an employee who is caring for someone with COVID-19. The cost to employers is offset through a quarterly refundable tax credit to employers equal to 100 percent of the cost of providing qualified paid sick and family leave wages. Under the FML provisions, an individual can take paid leave for any of the following reasons: 1) To comply with a recommendation from a public health official; 2) To care for an individual who is self-isolating because of a diagnosis or is experiencing symptoms; and 3) To care for a child whose school or child care provider has been closed.
National Assembly’s Position: Paid sick and family leave allows all Americans to reach their full potential. There are two significant employer loopholes, however, in this section of the law. Private employers with more than 500 employees are not required to adhere to the paid sick and FML provisions. Additionally, the Secretary of Labor has the authority to issue regulations to exclude from FML requirements certain health care providers and emergency responders from eligibility for leave and to exempt small businesses with fewer than 50 employees where the imposition of these requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business. Similarly, employers of health care providers or emergency responders can exempt employees from the sick leave provision. These first two loopholes could prevent up to 80 percent of employees from benefiting from the law’s paid sick and FML provisions.
The National Assembly urges Congress to require large employers to provide adequate paid sick and family and medical leave coverage to their employees during this health crisis. An employee from a large corporation deserves to have the same right to be compensated as those from smaller businesses while taking time off to take care of themselves or a loved one suffering from the coronavirus. We also encourage Congress to expand the list of acceptable uses for FML to cover family caregivers of people with disabilities or older Americans when regular care providers are unavailable due to the coronavirus.
The FFCRA temporarily increases support for Medicaid by increasing the federal share of Medicaid expenditures (FMAP) by 6.2 percent during the public health emergency, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates would “deliver roughly $35 billion in immediate, needed relief to states” if it’s in effect for the whole year. To receive additional Medicaid funding, a state is required not to tighten current Medicaid eligibility standards and is prevented from removing any beneficiaries from its Medicaid plan until the end of the public health emergency. The law also offers full coverage through Medicare and Medicaid for testing individuals for the coronavirus for the duration of the public health emergency, as well as requiring private insurers to cover enrollees’ costs associated with coronavirus testing.
National Assembly’s Position: Quality healthcare represents the foundation of our country’s well-being. Expanding access and funding to public healthcare is critical in any future legislative package. One step the National Assembly urges Congress to take is to temporarily end the cost-sharing provision of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medicaid expansion to encourage non-expansion states to increase their Medicaid eligible population. Many technical fixes should be added in the future, including creating a special enrollment period to allow uninsured individuals to purchase ACA marketplace plans during this crisis. One step already taken which the National Assembly applauds is the administration’s decision to suspend the health care aspect of the public charge rule for coronavirus treatment which is a critical first step in ensuring immigrant families seek public medical care without fear that it will negatively impact their immigration status.
The FFCRA addresses the immediate economic fallout of the coronavirus by providing $1 billion this year in emergency grants to states for activities related to processing and paying unemployment insurance benefits. One-half of these grants are allocated to provide additional funding to states for staffing, technology, systems, and other administrative costs. The other $500 million in grants are reserved for states that experience a 10 percent or more increase in unemployment. To receive this second set of grants, a state would also be required for the duration of the public health emergency to ease eligibility rules that are limiting access to unemployment insurance, such as work search requirements, required waiting periods and requirements to increase employer unemployment insurance taxes if they have high layoff rates. The law also provides full funding (instead of just 50 percent) for states that have experienced a 10 percent or more increase in unemployment to extend emergency unemployment benefits for up to an additional 26 weeks and suspends the financial penalty for extended benefits for states that waive the usual one-week waiting period for benefits. Additionally, the law provides states with access to interest-free loans to help pay for the increased cost of unemployment insurance benefits.
National Assembly’s Position: Unemployment insurance enables people to weather life’s storms such as job loss. Congress should begin working on legislation to address a spike in unemployment. One problem that Congress should seek to remedy now is how unemployment is currently calculated. An individual is only considered unemployed by the Bureau of Labor for its statistics if they ”have actively sought work in the past four weeks” (U3) but does not include “discouraged workers” who “want and are available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months,” but not within the previous four weeks “for the specific reason that they believed no jobs were available for them” (U4). This deficiency in the calculation likely would depress the actual unemployment rate in states and thus prevent them from accessing the second portion of the grants. The National Assembly encourages Congress to pass legislation to fix this problem by temporarily shifting the way the official unemployment rate is calculated from U-3 to U-4 to allow states to access federal grants more quickly.
Families First Coronavirus Response Act is an excellent first step in helping families rebuild the foundation of their financial security in this time of crisis; however almost all of the provisions in this bill expire at the end of the public health emergency or at the end of 2020. Regardless of the length of this pandemic, the negative economic ramifications will almost certainly extend into 2021 and beyond. In the next round of legislation Congress must take action not only to deal with the crisis at hand but to reexamine the critical role federal programs have in helping all Americans reach their full potential and rebuilding the foundations of well-being in the lives of families across our country.
The National Assembly will continue to track the progress of coronavirus legislation closely, as well as advocate for provisions that benefit the human service sector. For more information contact Zachary Tashman.