On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, the U.S. Senate unveiled and passed HR 748, the third COVID-19 emergency spending legislation. The House gave its final approval on Friday. The $2 trillion supplemental package attempts to cover a range of problem areas from small and big business relief, expanded and extended unemployment compensation, a tax refund pass-through, and a state stabilization fund of $150 billion. To provide a context of this $2 trillion package, before this pandemic started its U.S. spread in January, the total federal budget (including Social Security) was approximately $4.8 trillion.
One of the biggest features includes a provision for a one-time tax refund or rebate of $1200 per adult and $500 per child with the maximum rebate at $75,000 a person or $150,000 per couple with it gradually phased out at $99,000/$198,000. The funds will be distributed to individual bank accounts if the IRS has that information on file based on previous tax returns. Others may have to wait several weeks to receive the check in the mail, although these details are likely to evolve.
Another big part of individual relief is unemployment insurance (U.I.) benefits. Each state provides their own benefit level that usually provides around 40 percent of average salary. This would build on the maximum benefit available under the program by $600 per week. It would also extend benefits by up to 13 weeks and extend some coverage to independent workers/contractors including the “gig” economy such as Uber drivers. It allows some benefit for those nonprofits and faith-based agencies that do not normally pay into the state unemployment compensation system but instead pay when an employee makes a claim. It would offer some subsidy for these nonprofits. The U.I. system in non-recession times is funded by states through employer taxes.
This package builds on the previous COVID-19 #2 legislation, which had provided funding to supplement state U.I. systems to help with the explosion in claims. All of these extended benefits ($600 increase, 13-weeks of coverage, expanded coverage of workers) will be picked up by the federal government. The National Employment Law project has developed a fact sheet explaining the provisions found here.
The U.I. benefit of $600 is the part of the legislation that held up the Wednesday vote in the Senate. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tim Scott (R-SC), Rick Scott (R-FL) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) objected to the structure of the additional $600 benefit supplement. They argued the across-the-board $600 would result in some low-income workers in their state receiving more than their annual salary. In fact, the benefit was structured that way because of state U.I. systems don’t have the capacity to conduct a more complex benefit calculation per person—not in a crisis economy. Eventually, the senators were given the option to change the proposal, and their amendment died in a 48-48 vote.
The $500 billion funds for corporations include approximately $60 billion designated for the airlines, of which $25 billion is for employees. The legislation includes $377 billion designated for small businesses. This piece contains small business forgivable loans that will also cover nonprofits that existed on March 1, 2020 and had paid employees. For businesses with 500 people or less, the loan can be used for payroll and associated costs, including health insurance premiums, facilities costs, and interest on debt. Loans could be for up to two and a half months of payroll to a maximum of $10 million. As a condition, if the business keeps staff on payroll (at least 90 percent) between March 1 and June 30, they would be eligible to have their loans forgiven, essentially turning the loan into a grant. The final deal included new oversights over the big business funding. That piece required several days of negotiation since the original bill gave the Treasury Department broad discretion in which corporations would receive funding.
The package includes $100 billion for hospitals there are also numerous health care extensions including Community Mental Health Services and technical fixes and increased flexibility on coverage of testing, pricing provisions and grants to programs such as health centers and extensions and flexibility in Medicare coverages and use of telemedicine.
While the legislation included vital help for individuals and businesses and had the support of much of the human services community, there was disappointment that the final package did not include more specific funding for key services. It seems very likely there will be a Coronavirus #4. With increasing numbers of members of Congress testing or isolating themselves due to COVID-19, Congress has departed into April, but they are also on standby, and it is not clear how soon the next package will come about.