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Democrats’ $3 Trillion Virus Plan Tees Up Labor Policy Debate

May 12, 2020, 9:15 PM

Labor and employment proposals—including Democrats’ plan to extend the $600 weekly boost in unemployment insurance for Americans—will be a big part of the debate as leaders from both parties haggle over the next big-ticket relief bill.

House Democrats Tuesday unveiled the $3 trillion HEROES Act. The next relief package will be Congress’s fifth stimulus bill. But this time there’s greater pressure to build off of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March after an unprecedented 20.5 million jobs were lost in April.

Some of House Democrats’ labor proposals, in addition to provisions to provide flexibility for temporary guestworkers, could lead to partisan clashes. Republicans already are expressing concern about government spending in earlier relief legislation, and are demanding liability protections for employers—an idea that Democrats largely oppose.

The HEROES Act, with its centerpiece of $500 billion in aid for states, also includes an expansion of paid sick and family leave, as well as provisions covering workplace safety-protections, workers’ compensation, and job-training programs. The bill would establish a $200 billion fund to ensure hazard pay for essential workers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans are preparing a package of virus-related liability reforms that they believe are necessary for employers to bring employees back to work. McConnell again called legal protections for businesses a “red line” for any future aid package, and the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, later said the Democratic proposal is “not going anywhere.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have rejected liability protections for employers.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said a House vote on the HEROES Act is planned for Friday.

Paid Leave, Workplace Protections

The Democrats’ latest proposal will intensify debate over who pays for expanded sick and family leave for workers impacted by the coronavirus, because it would lift exemptions for certain businesses.

Recently enacted federal laws generally require companies to cover up to 10 weeks of partially paid family and medical leave for workers who need to care for a child in the event of virus-related school closures. Workers also can receive paid sick leave if they test positive for Covid-19, are subject to quarantine, or are caring for someone in similar circumstances. Companies with 500 or more employees were exempted from the paid-leave mandates, and prior legislation also limited family-leave requirements for employers of small businesses.

Democrats have signaled they’re prepared to dig in over those exemptions, but House Republican leadership previously said renegotiating coronavirus paid-leave provisions is a non-starter.

House Democrats also are taking another shot at forcing the Labor Department to require companies to take specific steps to protect workers still on the job during the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposal would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard within seven days of the bill’s enactment. That standard would force certain businesses to take various actions designed to protect workers.

The agency doesn’t have a specific standard to enforce for employers to protect workers from diseases caused by airborne pathogens, such as tuberculosis or Covid-19. Instead, it has relied on a “general duty” clause under federal workplace safety law that requires employers to address job hazards. Democrats failed to get an emergency temporary standard for OSHA into previous virus-response bills.

House Democrats want to extend the $600 weekly boost in unemployment insurance, which is currently set to expire July 31, through the end of March 2021. The newly created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which pays benefits to independent contractors and other workers not traditionally eligible for unemployment compensation, also would be continued through March 31, 2021. The current cutoff date is Dec. 31.

Flexibility for Temporary Guestworkers

The Democrats’ proposal also would relax deadlines for temporary guestworkers in the U.S., as long as they enjoyed legal status on Jan. 26. Visa workers who qualify would be granted some relief in applications for extension or change of status, renewals of employment authorization, or any other application for extension or renewal of a period of authorized stay.

According to the measure, temporary visa holders’ applications would be considered “timely filed” if the due date is during the public-health emergency declaration and the application is filed within 60 days after it otherwise would have been due.

The bill also would extend temporary protections for “essential critical infrastructure workers,” including expedited green cards for certain foreign-born physicians already in the U.S., emergency visa processing for medical professionals outside of the U.S., and relaxed rules on where and how H-1B doctors can practice.

The provisions for essential personnel echo policy changes lawmakers previously requested in a bipartisan effort to get more medical workers in place to help treat Covid-19 patients.

With assistance from Ben Penn

To contact the reporters on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com