Congress passes 2nd phase of COVID-19 relief package

Sunday, March 22, 2020
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Iowa schools are closed, and parents are staying home from work with their children. Iowa's bars and restaurants can't serve customers in house, and the employees are feeling some financial strain. Closures aimed at stopping the potential spread of COVID-19 among the public are resulting in a loss of wages for some, and federal legislators are taking steps to provide financial relief.

Congress passed a bill Wednesday aimed at covering the cost of sick leave and medical leave wages for small business owners and employees. This week's bill comes after Congress passed its first phase of relief last month. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst highlighted the bipartisan support for the measures, which ultimately put $1 billion toward loan assistance for small businesses, agricultural cooperatives and nonprofits affected by the novel coronavirus. The bill also authorized $500 million for the administration of telehealth services within the Medicare system and $4 billion to increase access to testing, treatments and the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

.Sen. Joni Ernst

Wednesday's bill was introduced in the U.S. House Wednesday, March 11, and passed by a largely bipartisan vote of 363-40 early that Saturday morning. U.S. Rep. Steve King was among the 40 Republicans who voted against the legislation. King called the bill "a typical Washington, D.C., response to an atypical problem."

“In an effort to be seen as doing something to address the impact of the Wuhan virus/COVID-19, (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi scrambled to present a hastily thrown-together bill that no voting member of Congress could have read in its final form," King said after the weekend vote. "The bill places onerous paid sick-leave requirements on small businesses. The impact, if left uncorrected by the Senate, is a viral threat to the survival of thousands of small businesses and will force many of them out of business."

King went on to say he contacted his colleagues in the Senate and urged them to amend the bill before passing it. The bill was received by the Senate on March 17 and discussion began the next day. It was amended, passed by a 90-8 vote, sent back to the House and signed by the president — all on March 18.

"This bill includes a refundable payroll tax credit to reimburse — dollar for dollar — local businesses for paid sick leave and family and medical leave wages paid to employees that are affected by COVID-19, including for those who are self-employed," Ernst said.

The bill also funds emergency family and medical leave for those caring for a child at home due to the closure of a school or child care facility.

Sen. Chuck Grassley

Ernst said Congress also approved $500 million in grant funding for states to better process increased unemployment applications and payments. An additional $500 million is available for states which see a 10% increase in unemployment to extend benefits. The junior senator said $250 million has been put toward supplemental nutrition programs, and $1.2 billion will help cover free COVID-19 testing when ordered by a doctor. Ernst pointed out $142 million of the $1.2 billion is earmarked for U.S. service members and veterans.

Legislators are now pushing for the relief package's third phase. They hope to pass a tax bill that would grant recovery checks of up to $1,200 for most individual taxpayers, plus another $500 for each child claimed. The Internal Revenue Service will use 2018 tax returns to calculate the total of each check. The dollar figure will decrease by $5 for every $100 in adjusted gross income over $75,000 on the 2018 returns, according to information from U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley's office. Grassley said in his floor remarks Thursday the relief package's third phase would push back a number of tax deadlines for individuals and businesses in order to avoid in-person meetings during any viral outbreaks.

Rep. Steve King

“Preventing the spread of the coronavirus will take a financial toll on individuals, families and businesses,” Grassley said. “These recommendations would blunt the impact for most Americans and limit the damage to the U.S. economy. We can contain this deadly virus without destroying livelihoods or the nation’s economy."

Grassley also urged President Donald Trump on Friday to grant Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' request for an expedited review of a Major Disaster Declaration. Reynolds declared a State of Public Health Emergency for the state of Iowa on March 17, and Grassley said the Major Disaster Declaration could provide additional resources to the state as it deals with rising cases of COVID-19 — 90 cases as of Sunday evening.

"The governor determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster," Grassley said.

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