Saving Grace: Families First Coronavirus Response Act

March 19, 2020

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act is now in place. Find out what this bill means for employers and employees alike.

Photo of a hands holding a candle, symbolizing the saving grace of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Employees across the United States have tough decisions recently.  On one hand, they don’t want to contribute to spreading coronavirus.  On the other hand, they need to bring home a paycheck to support their families.  The financial support is not for extravagant things, however.  Rather, it is for basic needs.  The U.S. federal government, thus, has passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R.6201), which President Trump signed on March 18, 2020. 

While the focus is currently on slowing the spread of the disease and protecting employees’ livelihoods, employers are also at risk.  So, read on to find out the details of this bill, and the considerations for employees and employers alike.

H.R.6201 Backstory

Most citizens across the U.S. are well aware of the coronavirus epidemic.  However, until people are in a position where they must choose between health and a paycheck, they might not realize the severity of the situation.

Thankfully, the medical community and our leaders have been monitoring the epidemic around the world.  First, we see the situation in Italy.  As of today, there are more sick patients than there are hospital beds.  Then, we look at China with optimism, since their new COVID-19 cases seem to have leveled off.  There, we recognize the difference between the ways the two countries have handled the situation.  So, we hope cases in the U.S. will soon level off, as well, due to our concerted efforts in containing the virus.

With these two countries in mind, the House of Representatives then went to the mats, negotiating until they reached a deal on March 13th.  That was the same day President Trump declared a national emergency, which freed up funds to allow this relief package.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act Topics

Now, here are the important topics included in the bill.  In brief, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides the following:

  • Paid sick leave
  • Free COVID-19 testing
  • Expanding food assistance
  • Unemployment benefits
  • The requirement for employers to provide additional protections for healthcare workers

While there are extra specifications about expanding food assistance, here is the information employers need to know about paid sick leave and the unemployment benefits.

H.R.6201 Paid Leave

First, the bill includes provisions for establishing a federal emergency paid leave benefits program.  This would provide payments to employees who are taking unpaid leave due to the COVID-19 epidemic.  Those included are employees unable to work because of school or daycare closures due to a public health emergency.  Furthermore, employees are eligible to receive benefits if they must stay home to care for a minor who has no other option for care.  However, only those who have been on payroll for at least 30 calendar days are eligible.  Then, the benefits are capped at $200 per day, with a maximum of $10,000 to expire at the end of 2020.

Related:  Big Announcement: Vaccination Mandates Are on the Horizon

Unemployment Benefits

Second, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides grants to states so that they can expand unemployment benefits to process and pay claims.

Paid Sick Leave

Image of a woman holding her head with a thermometer in her mouth.

Third, the bill zeros in on ensuring that employees receive paid sick leave from their employers.  Now, employers are required to pay 80 hours of sick leave benefits for reasons including the following:

  • Government-ordered quarantine or isolation
  • Health care provider-ordered self-quarantine
  • Employees with COVID-19 symptoms seeking diagnosis
  • Caring for a quarantined relative  
  • Closed schools or child care facilities due to a public health emergency

Notably, the benefits cap at $511 per day for an employee’s own care, and $200 per day when caring for another person.  Alternatively, for employees who do not work fulltime hours, their pay will be calculated based on the average of hours worked over a two-week period.  This benefit also expires at the end of 2020.

H.R.6201 vs. FMLA

So, you are probably wondering how this new bill differs from the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Well, FMLA doesn’t necessarily require employers to pay employees during their 12 weeks of job-protected leave.  However, H.R.6201 does require employers to pay employees at least 2/3 of an employee’s normal rate of pay for ten of those 12 weeks. 

Other than this, the standard rules of FMLA remain intact.  Specifically, the first two weeks can be unpaid, or employees can take accrued sick time, personal time, or PTO.  However, employers can’t demand that employees take accrued time if they choose not to.  Thereafter, the requirements mandated by H.R.6201 kick in.

H.R.6201 and Special Consideration for Small Businesses

Now, it’s important to read the fine print, because this bill is specific to small businesses.  Refundable tax credits will be offered to those required to offer emergency benefits.  This will help offset the cost of providing such assistance.  Also, if offering emergency benefits would put the company at risk of closure, the company can apply for an exemption.  However, only employers with fewer than 50 employees are eligible to take this action.  Furthermore, the bill does not cover private companies who employ more than 500 employees.  The reason is that legislators cannot justify using taxpayer dollars for things that large businesses should be able to afford, and should already have in place.

Related:  Returning to Work: Managing Employee Fears during Coronavirus

H.R.6201 Shaping Future Benefits Programs

Speaking of benefits programs in place, this bill is projected to prompt businesses of all sizes to take a good look at future offerings.  Specifically, the COVID-19 epidemic has opened everyone’s eyes to the unforeseen, and made business owners large and small recognize the gaps in benefits.  There are many more questions in the queue that have yet to be answered by legislation.

More to Come

Keep in mind that it’s not a bad idea to look over the bill in further detail, in order to be able to arm your employees with information about additional supplements that they can access.  It is important to be a trusted resource for them during this period of uncertainty.

While the bill is a step in the right direction, legislators recognize that it could jeopardize small businesses.  They are fearful that small business owners won’t be able to sustain paying employees for an extended period of time.  Therefore, they are currently back at the drawing board to put together a package to help keep small businesses afloat.  Hopefully, government leaders being proactive will be the saving grace for employers and employees alike.

Photo of hands, folded in thanks, for the new bill in place.

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