The House and Senate just passed the third bill in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In approving the largest single expenditure in our nation’s history, Congress has demonstrated that partisan divisions will not prevent our government from acting when confronted with some crises that threaten social and economic stability worldwide. Much has been written about loans for small businesses, unemployment relief, and other financial guarantees included in the bill; however, federal employees should also note what this bill does—and does not do—to help government workers impacted by the pandemic.
Some of the bill’s provisions apply to federal workers and private sector employees alike. For example, federal employees whose individual income is below $75,000 or household income does not exceed $150,000 may receive a $1,200 check. Any employee with a federal student loan will have their payments suspended through September 30, 2020. As with private sector individuals, public sector employees with a federally-backed mortgage will be protected against foreclosures because of financial difficulty brought on by the pandemic.
Other provisions are specific to each agency and – in some cases – even components within an agency. Most agencies will receive a sum of money to cover overtime, salaries, and expenses due to the coronavirus. At the Bureau of Prisons, the Secretary of Health & Human Services can consider BOP a priority, relative to other high-risk agencies, to receive personal protective equipment for BOP inmates and personnel. Moreover, the Director of BOP may extend the amount of time prisoners can be placed in home confinement in order to reduce movement of and contact with inmates who might have the virus. Similarly, employees and contractors with the Department of Veterans Affairs must be provided personal protective equipment (N-95 masks, gloves, etc.) when providing at-home care. Employees within the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor may be exempted from caps on premium and overtime pay for work primarily related to coronavirus preparation, prevention, or response. Federal courts may be permitted to conduct a significant amount of business, including many hearings, by video teleconference.
Although it provided all of the above, the final version of the bill written by the Senate omitted many provisions for federal employees demanded by the House. Specifically, federal employees working through the pandemic would have received up to $2,000 in reimbursement for child care costs for each dependent child. Any employee with a telework agreement would have been required to work remotely until January 2021. The House version made employees who cannot telework, and whose offices are closed, eligible for paid “weather and safety leave.” It also revoked three of President Trump’s Executive Orders and one memorandum that weakened federal employee unions and expedited the disciplinary process. In addition, employees directly treating anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, or those with “frequent, unavoidable contact” with the public, including Transportation Security Administration screeners, would have been eligible for hazard pay.
With the largest price tag ever enacted for a single piece of legislation, this bill accomplishes a lot. Left on the cutting room floor, however, were significant protections for the federal workforce. While it’s important to note that Congress’s other responses to the crisis have additional provisions for the 2.1 million federal employees, they should hope this is not the last piece of legislation. That may be in the cards. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that, “There’s so many things we didn’t get in any of these bills yet in the way that we need to,” hinting at the possibility of more legislation to meet the crisis.
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