House Passes Emergency Paid Sick Leave, Free Coronavirus Testing in Sweeping Bill

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

UPDATE - March 18, 2020: President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The law in its final form amended the original House version. While it includes temporary paid leave provisions, it also includes an exception for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees if paying family and medical leave would jeopardize the viability of the business.

March 16, 2020

Amidst the growing global coronavirus pandemic, the House of Representatives has passed a sweeping bill that aims to strengthen the safety net for workers in a variety of ways.

The bill passed by a vote of 363-40, and President Trump has voiced his support for the measure. The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation later this week.

Included among the many employment-related provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act are:

  • Paid leave (including sick leave);
  • Expanded family and medical leave programs;
  • Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits;
  • Free coronavirus testing, including for the uninsured; and
  • Refundable payroll tax credits for employers.

Full-time employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees would be able to take up to two weeks of paid sick leave for circumstances related to the coronavirus if they are:

  • Affected by school closings;
  • Caring for a sick family member; or
  • Infected by the virus or quarantined.

Some public health experts had called for paying any worker to stay home to stop the spread of the virus, but the bill does not go that far. An estimated 59 million Americans work for employers with 500 or more employees, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The legislation would not preempt existing state or local paid sick leave entitlements. Part-time employees would be entitled to hourly paid sick time equal to the number of hours they work, on average, over a two-week period.

Expanded Family and Medical Leave

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees have been unable to receive paid leave. But the bill would enable qualifying employees working for companies with fewer than 500 employees who have been on the job for at least 30 days to earn two-thirds of their average monthly earnings for up to 12 weeks, with a cap of $4,000. The benefits also could apply retroactively.

The first 14 days may consist of unpaid leave. However, an employee may elect to substitute any accrued vacation leave, personal leave or other earned leave for the unpaid leave.

All of these requirements would apply only to coronavirus-related leave reasons, and would expire on December 31, 2020, under the legislation.

Unemployment Insurance

This bill also would provide $1 billion this year to assist states with processing and paying the many unemployment insurance (UI) claims that could be on the horizon.

Half of those funds would be used for emergency grants for states that experience at least a 10 percent increase in unemployment stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. The other half would be reserved for covering increased administrative costs of each state's UI program.

Also under the legislation, coronavirus testing would be free for all individuals, including those who are uninsured.

Refundable Payroll Tax Credits

To help employers during this period, the legislation would provide for a refundable payroll tax credit equal to 100% of qualified paid sick or family leave income paid by an employer for each calendar quarter.

The credit would apply to amounts paid to employees who are sick or quarantined as a result of the coronavirus. A lesser amount covers payments to employees caring for family members or for children home due to school or care closures.

Self-employed individuals may also qualify for the refundable tax credit if they had to self-isolate, comply with a self-isolation recommendation or care for a family member or child whose school is closed due to the coronavirus.