Monday, January 30, 2023
Jan. 30, 2023

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House passes sweeping COVID-19 relief bill

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler votes with the majority in favor of measure

By , Columbian staff writer

The U.S House of Representatives early Saturday passed an emergency bill to stem the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak, a package that included some issues championed by local lawmakers.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed 363 to 40. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted with the majority in favor of the measure.

“Folks in Southwest Washington have been on the front lines of this outbreak; with confirmed cases of the virus and the economic impact already weighing on our communities, this bill will provide much needed relief through family and sick leave, tax credits to support small businesses, and improved testing access,” Herrera Beutler said in a media release.

“I supported this emergency relief solution because we must provide assurance to families, seniors and others in Southwest Washington that they will have the resources and tools at their disposal to get through this difficult situation.”

The Senate is expected to take up the bill early this week, where it will likely pass. President Donald Trump issued a tweet in approval of the package late Friday evening.

The sweeping bill — which doesn’t have a price tag attached to it, because the Congressional Budget Office didn’t have enough time to calculate one — guarantees free COVID-19 testing, bumps up federal payments to state Medicaid programs and allocates $1 billion to reimburse the cost of testing for uninsured patients.

It additionally guarantees two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave matched at least two-thirds of a worker’s usual pay. That provision comes with a major caveat: Those benefits only apply to employees of businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Large employers are excluded, and the Labor Department may also exempt any company with fewer than 50 employees if providing paid leave “would jeopardize the viability of the business.”

Those qualifiers could potentially exclude about 20 million workers from coverage, the New York Times reports. About 59 million Americans work for exempt big companies. Of those, about 6.5 million don’t receive paid sick days. Another 12 million work for companies with fewer than 50 employees with no paid sick days.

For workers at a nonexempt company to qualify for paid leave under the bill, they must be infected by the virus, quarantined, have a sick family member or be impacted by school closures. The government will offset the cost of providing paid emergency leave through tax credits.

The paid leave allocations, the most contentious aspect of the bill, will expire after a year — a key provision to get House Republicans on board.

Putting the puzzle together

The package that ultimately passed early Saturday morning adopted pared-down elements from the Healthy Families Act, a paid sick leave bill previously championed by Sen. Patty Murray that stalled in Congress last year.

The senior Democrat from Washington had recently added a new proposal in response to the coronavirus outbreak: She’d push to require all employers, of any size, to grant 14 days of paid sick leave to their employees in the case of a public health emergency.

“Workers want to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and their communities — so especially in the middle of public health crises like this, staying home sick shouldn’t have to mean losing a paycheck or a job,” Murray said in a press release last week.

“This bill would immediately give workers the ability to care for themselves, their families, and help keep their communities safe. We need to pass it without delay.”

The package that ultimately passed at 1 a.m. Saturday stops short of Murray’s bill, which would apply to companies of any size and guarantee 14 paid days to workers in the case of any public health emergency, not just the current coronavirus outbreak.

Carolyn Long, a Democrat running to represent Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, said in a written statement that she supports Murray’s version of the bill.

“In Congress, I will fight to pass the Healthy Families Act, and in the near term, I support the emergency paid sick leave in the House’s COVID-19 assistance legislation that also provides relief to small businesses,” Long said.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act also adopted elements from Herrera Beutler’s PREP Act, which she introduced Thursday with two House colleagues. That bill would expand benefits available under a federal emergency declaration to include nutrition benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment assistance, crisis counseling and case management during an infectious outbreak.

The package passed by the House early Saturday includes about $1 billion for SNAP, food banks, the free- or reduced-price school lunch program as well as other food aid. It also suspends work and work training requirements for SNAP during the coronavirus outbreak.

The full legislation additionally provides $1 billion in emergency grants to states to help process and pay unemployment insurance.

Columbian staff writer