Congress has passed a multi-billion dollar aid package early on March 14 that aims to limit the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to take it up this week.
Here is a look at major elements of the legislation.
FREE CORONAVIRUS TESTING
The bill would provide free coronavirus testing for those who need it. President Donald Trump’s administration has struggled to provide such tests.
The legislation would require private insurers to pay for all testing costs for people to whom they provide medical coverage. It also would cover testing costs for people who receive healthcare through government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
PAID SICK LEAVE AND EMERGENCY LEAVE FOR SOME WORKERS
House Democrats scaled back their original plan passed last week in an effort to get the Republicans in the Senate to approve it.
The bill would still extend two weeks of sick pay to people who are affected by coronavirus, which includes those in quarantine and those caring for children whose schools closed their doors.
But any extension beyond that — 10 weeks — would only be granted to parents taking care of children with shuttered schools and daycare centers. Health care workers, emergency responders, workers in quarantine or looking after family members with coronavirus would no longer qualify for the extra time off.
Businesses had warned of the financial burdens of offering sick leave to their workers, given they may not have enough money on hand to pay workers as they confront significant disruptions. The legislation would have compensated them through tax credits.
The original bill had a provision providing paid medical and sick leave for up to three months at two-thirds of a worker’s wages.
Roughly a third of U.S. employees, predominantly lower-paid workers, currently do not get paid when they stay home due to illness. Health officials have said the virus could spread more quickly if infected workers feel like they cannot afford to stay home without pay.
The bill would not establish the permanent paid sick-leave benefit that Democrats have long sought. It would only apply to coronavirus-related illnesses, and would last only through the end of the calendar year.
ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
The bill would cover all costs for states that extend unemployment payments for six months beyond the usual time limit, which is six months in most states. States would also get $1 billion to cover the additional administrative costs.
The benefit would apply only to states that see their unemployment rates rise by at least 10%. They also would get interest-free loans, if needed, to cover benefit costs under the bill.
It also would encourage employers to avoid layoffs by reducing employees’ hours instead. Affected employees would get unemployment benefits to offset lost wages.
The bill would strengthen several programs that help feed low-income Americans. It would provide $250 million to give 25 million home-delivery meals to seniors, $400 million for food banks, $500 million to help feed mothers and young children and $100 million to territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam.
It would allow schools that produce free breakfast and lunch to low-income students to distribute those meals to go, rather than requiring the students to eat in a cafeteria.
The bill would suspend work requirements for the “food stamp” program that helps low-income people buy groceries. That would override a new Trump Administration restriction, due to kick in on April 1, that would have cut off benefits for 700,000 childless, able-bodied adults who are not working.
INCREASE FUNDING FOR LOW-INCOME HEALTH INSURANCE
The package would increase federal funding for Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, which typically experiences increased enrollment during economic downturns. The Trump Administration has sought to scale back Medicaid, so far without success.