Following delays in the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill originally passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday to address the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are already on the minds of many North Carolinians.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act focuses on providing paid sick leave and free testing for the virus. The law allows for full-time employees to take up to two weeks of emergency paid sick leave, although some small businesses can opt out of the sick leave. Companies with more than 500 employees are not subject to this provision of the law.
It also expands unemployment benefits, Medicaid coverage temporarily and family and medical leave.
The law passed in the Senate in a 90-8 vote on Wednesday. Both North Carolina senators — Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — voted for the bill. Congressional leaders are now working on a third, even larger package focused on the economic impacts of the pandemic and may include a form of universal basic income for all citizens.
U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Wake, Orange Durham) said in a statement after the bill was signed into law the measures taken were important given the urgency of the crisis.
“COVID-19 is a global pandemic that’s here in North Carolina and the United States," Price said. "The rhythm of daily life is already altered in many communities, and families face uncertainty in accessing health care, ensuring food security and providing economic security.”
Ana Pardo, policy advocate with the Workers’ Rights Project at the N.C. Justice Center, said she is concerned about the ability of small businesses and large companies to opt out. She said she is also concerned about how quickly small business owners would be able to be reimbursed for paid sick leave because the new law requires them to apply every three months.
“A lot of small businesses can’t float that money, especially because a lot of them are going to be closing,” Pardo said, referencing the order by Gov. Roy Cooper for restaurant dining rooms and bars to be closed.
Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation, said he thought the measures taken thus far were appropriate and said he was concerned about the potential for government overreach in the proposal of more programs in a new package being negotiated by lawmakers.
“Anytime there’s a crisis, something like that is going to happen on Capitol Hill, people say ‘aha, this is my opportunity to try to get more money for my project,'” Kokai said.
While Kokai said he preferred to see programs that are temporary and targeted when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, he believes some measures being taken should become permanent.
“Now one very positive thing that has happened so far is the relaxation of government rules and regulations that really don't have much of a reason to exist anyway,” Kokai said. “Like North Carolina rules link to the certificate of need that blocks health care providers from adding beds to their facilities or opening new facilities or purchasing major pieces of medical equipment, unless they get permission from the government.”
Another major issue addressed by both the new federal law and executive actions by Cooper were unemployment benefits, as many impacted businesses are beginning to lay off workers or temporarily close.
At a Wednesday press briefing with the N.C. Justice Center on the topic of unemployment insurance and the coronavirus crisis, workers who had been laid off recently due to the crisis talked about their experience.
Jenni Propst, who works in the technical theater and stage production industry, talked about how rapidly things changed as nearly every event that would have required their services was canceled.
“Last week was one of the most devastating of my career, as I had to tell hundreds of people that their jobs were canceled, and I had no idea if and when those jobs would be rescheduled,” Propst said.
Patrick Conway, an economics professor at UNC who participated in the briefing, said cuts made to the unemployment system in the state by Republicans in 2013 will shift the impacts of an economic crisis to workers.
“We do have a large trust fund, we've built up a large reserve, but of course that’s what we said before the 2008 financial crisis,” Conway said. “When you have this large of an unemployment event, it will go through that trust fund rather quickly. We will need all of the resources that North Carolina has, and we’ll also need to collaborate with the federal government.”
Pardo said this has been an issue the N.C. Justice Center has been focused on for a while, and she thinks that major action needs to be taken in order to increase benefits and make them more accessible during the crisis.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.