The $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill backed by House Democrats was headed for a vote in that chamber Friday, although Republican opposition in the Senate was expected to prevent the bill from ever becoming law.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the legislation could become the basis of negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House for compromise legislation.
The White House issued an official veto threat Thursday for the Democratic bill, which would be the biggest relief package in history.
Among its flaws, the Democratic bill – called the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act – threatens to undermine the increased workplace flexibility and accommodations that workers and employers alike need to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic bill includes a full-year extension of what was supposed to be a temporary mandate on small businesses to provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick and family leave to all workers.
Proponents of the legislation present this as another gift to workers – but it’s not. The mandate would make it harder for employers to stay afloat amid changing circumstances and meet their employees’ unique needs. Workers could expect more job losses, and those out of work would have a harder time finding jobs.
Under the proposal, the paid leave mandate that took effect April 1 would not sunset until the end of 2021. Throughout this year and next, employers would be required to provide both full- and part-time employees with up to 12 weeks of emergency paid sick and family leave.
Although employers can fill out paperwork and send in documentation to receive a credit for some or all of the paid leave they provide, it’s neither a straightforward nor simple process. Rather, Congress dictates the terms and conditions, which often overlap and interfere with employers’ own policies and other provisions Congress has enacted.
For example, Congress dictates that workers qualify to receive the benefits their first day on the job and says the benefits must be given on top of any preexisting sick leave benefits, which cannot be changed by employers.
But COVID-19 has forced businesses and households alike to readjust their finances, and some businesses need to temporarily adjust their employees’ benefits packages.
The mandate also dictates that employers allow the leave to be taken intermittently or as a reduced work schedule. Moreover, employers cannot ask for documentation of an employee’s need for leave until seven days after the employee has returned from work.
Employers also cannot discipline, discharge or otherwise discriminate against any worker who takes paid sick or family leave, and they must restore workers who take leave to the same or equivalent position after their leave.
These mandates derail the organic process of businesses finding ways to meet their unique situations and needs. Instead of using their existing paid leave policies and focusing on adjusting to remote work options and keeping their businesses alive, employers are having to figure out how to comply with the new mandate.
Rather than help workers stay employed, this extended mandate could exacerbate unemployment.
Nearly a quarter of all U.S. workers have already filed for unemployment in just the last nine weeks. For nearly 37 million newly unemployed Americans, government-mandated paid leave benefits are meaningless; their priority is finding a job and getting their careers back on track.
That will become much less likely if Congress moves to make it even more expensive and more complicated for businesses to rehire. And regrettably, it could put women – who are more likely to be primary caregivers – at a disadvantage in the job market.
This paid leave mandate simply isn’t necessary. Federal law already requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave.
Most employers want to do right by their employees and that’s why the overwhelming majority of full-time workers already have paid leave benefits. But employers don’t need to be altruistic to realize that it’s in their best interests to allow and even encourage sick workers to stay home. That’s never been truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than meddle in the employee-employer relationship with a sweeping mandate that burdens small businesses, encourages layoffs, and curtails workplace flexibility, policymakers ought to focus on the real vulnerabilities that people face. That is, the risk that unreasonably prolonged, forced shutdowns will cause thousands of businesses to shutter their doors for good and that potentially millions of jobs will be lost and could take years to recover.
Congress should make it easier for workers to prepare for time off by expanding opportunities to save pre-tax income, allowing workers to opt for comp time rather than additional overtime pay (a policy change including in the Working Families Flexibility Act) and reducing costly mandates, taxes, and regulations that prevent employers from having the resources necessary to provide paid leave.
And Congress can help workers accommodate to evolving work situations – including remote work and more flexible schedules to adjust to children being home – by easing restrictions on home-based businesses and clarifying the definition of an employee so that workers have more options to earn a living and be their own bosses, if that’s what they want.
Americans want the opportunity to work and provide for themselves and their families. They know that employers face real challenges staying afloat and keeping workers paid. Congress shouldn’t make it harder for them to do so.