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Congress debating ways to help boost economy hit by coronavirus

The Hill logo The Hill 3/9/2020 Cristina Marcos
Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi are posing for a picture: Congress debating ways to help boost economy hit by coronavirus © Greg Nash Congress debating ways to help boost economy hit by coronavirus

Congress is considering a range of legislative responses to the coronavirus outbreak, from a paid national sick leave policy to tax relief for the hardest hit industries.

Paid sick leave is one of several measures that House Democrats are advocating for to help mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus. They also want to ensure unemployment insurance for people who lose their jobs due to the outbreak and expand food assistance to low-income families.

The Trump administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are focusing on "targeted" measures such as tax deferments for industries most affected by the outbreak, such as the travel and hospitality sectors.

The consideration of additional measures comes less than a week after Congress and President Trump enacted an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to boost federal, state and local agencies' efforts to contain the coronavirus. But with the stock market still reeling and businesses already feeling the impact of the uncertainty caused by the outbreak, lawmakers are under pressure to do more.

Paid sick leave in particular is taking on new urgency as concern grows over low-wage workers least likely to have access to paid time off - like those in the restaurant or customer service industries - potentially spreading the coronavirus in their communities.

Public health authorities have been urging people to stay home if they feel sick, but there's growing worry that those workers won't have the financial means to follow the guidelines.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) listed paid sick leave as one of their demands for additional steps to take to boost the economy hit by the public health crisis.

The U.S. remains one of the only wealthy industrialized countries that does not ensure universal access to paid sick leave, due to longstanding concerns mostly from the GOP about the costs to businesses.

Ten states and the District of Columbia, as well as 19 cities and three counties, have adopted their own policies requiring employers to offer paid sick leave if they don't already provide it voluntarily. But there is no national paid policy, which has resulted in about a quarter of American workers lacking access to it.

Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement that "workers impacted by quarantine orders or responsible for caring for children impacted by school closures must receive paid sick leave to alleviate the devastating consequences of lost wages."

They also called for guaranteeing unemployment insurance for workers who lose their jobs due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, as well as measures such as ensuring everyone has access to affordable coronavirus-related medical treatment and preventing price gouging for essential items.

The House Education and Labor Committee will also hold a hearing Wednesday to discuss legislation reintroduced last year by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) that would require businesses with at least 15 workers to grant seven days of paid sick leave annually to allow workers to stay home sick, seek medical care or take care of a sick family member.

The committee said in a statement Monday that the hearing will "emphasize how paid sick days are critical for protecting the health and financial safety of workers and their families, particularly in the response to COVID-19."

DeLauro, along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), introduced legislation Friday that would also require employers to immediately provide 14 additional days of paid sick leave when there is a public health emergency, such as the coronavirus.

The bill would also ensure that the paid sick leave for a public health emergency can be used for a worker under quarantine or to take care of children if schools are closed.

"Members of Congress can stay home. Others may. But people, you know, can't. They're not going to get paid. And so that's why it's critically important that we face this issue and we do something about it as quickly as we can," DeLauro told reporters on Monday.

DeLauro, who has pushed for a paid sick leave policy for years, said "it would be my hope that this is the kind of thing that we might do" in response to the coronavirus, adding that she was "very, very encouraged" by Pelosi and Schumer calling for it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, also took the opportunity to renew his call for a national paid sick leave mandate.

"We are the only major country not to guarantee paid sick leave. That is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. And it is a moral issue. We must finally guarantee paid sick leave to every worker in America," Sanders tweeted on Monday.

The Washington Post and CNN reported Monday that the White House is also considering an expansion of paid sick leave as part of its coronavirus response.

Such a move would come after President Trump signed legislation into law late last year that grants federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

But GOP lawmakers aren't as keen on a paid sick leave policy, at least in the same way that DeLauro's bill envisions.

"The costly one-size-fits-all federal paid sick leave mandate contained in H.R. 1784 is especially detrimental to small businesses and will do more harm than good," a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee said in a statement.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top Republican on the panel, is "supportive of solutions that allow businesses of all sizes to continue developing innovative, personalized, and workable paid sick leave policies," the spokesman added.

For now, GOP lawmakers are primarily pushing for some form of tax relief in response to the coronavirus.

According to a spokesman, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is "exploring the possibility of targeted tax relief measures that could provide a timely and effective response to the coronavirus."

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