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Congress Passes COVID-19 Assistance for Families and State COVID-19 Responses

On March 18, the president signed into law H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, sweeping legislation to provide assistance to Americans during the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, this measure addresses the needs of some of our nation’s most vulnerable people. This is the second piece of legislation passed by Congress relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the first measure (PL 116-123) provided an $8.3 billion emergency supplemental appropriations to support federal efforts to contain and address the coronavirus, including supporting research into treatments, and helping state and local health agencies respond to the virus.

Specifically, the measure creates a federal emergency paid leave benefits program to provide payments to employees who may have been forced to take unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak. Moving forward, the law requires employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, and provides these employers with certain tax benefits to help pay for this requirement.

The COVID-19 crisis is also impacting many families’ access to food. Anticipating a spike in applications for assistance, H.R. 6201 create an emergency fund for two existing programs that help many afford groceries, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Additionally, the law waives certain restrictions on school lunch programs allowing schools to serve lunches even though they are closed. Unfortunately, many school children receive their only guaranteed meal at school. Additionally, the law states that once COVID-19 testing becomes readily available, diagnosis testing will be at no cost to the consumer. Lastly, this law temporarily increases the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP).

Congress has already begun work on a third, more comprehensive, coronavirus bill that would provide additional funding for hospitals, expanded unemployment insurance, small business assistance, help with child care, and food assistance for seniors, among other issues.ASLA has joined with 222 other national and local organizations in sending a letter to Congress urging them to include support for public transit.Social distancing and reduced demand for public transit are having, and will continue to have, a negative impact on public transit including well after the public health crisis has subsided.

While much of the attention has been on the federal response bills, state governments are also working hard to introduce and implement legislation at the state and local levels to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. As of March 20, at least 31 states and the District of Columbia had introduced legislation to combat the spread and effects of this virus. Of the bills that have been introduced, the vast majority include resolutions to encourage certain practices and bills that involve funding, workforce protections or medical coverage, disease surveillance, isolation and quarantine or are related to actions taken by the Governor in a state of emergency. Multiple states are also considering or are under executive orders to expedite licensure reciprocity for health care workers and other related professions and many states are also considering extension times for license renewals. The National Conference of State Legislatures COVID-19 webpage provides a summary of current state and federal actions related to the virus and occupational licensing.

Additionally, as of March 20, at least 21legislatures (Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virgin Islands and Wisconsin) have postponed their legislative session. Four Additional chambers, Missouri Senate, New Jersey Assembly, Oklahoma Senate and Ohio House, have also postponed their legislative session.

States are also grappling with both the practical and legal questions around running elections while also decreasing the potential for spreading the virus. Much of the responsibility lies with local jurisdictions or the executive branch. However, policymakers are entering into the ring and legislation is just beginning to be introduced to address how elections can be well-executed even as public gatherings are discouraged in many locations. Ballotpedia provides a comprehensive look at announcements involving changes to state election dates and procedures resulting from the coronavirus outbreak.

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