US President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2020.
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01:39 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

House lawmakers scaled back their efforts Monday night to offer millions of Americans paid sick and family leave, a weak link in the nation’s fight to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act originally passed with wide bipartisan support early Saturday morning but faced some objections from Republicans, particularly over the impact of the paid leave program on businesses. The House approved a set of changes Monday by unanimous consent, clearing the path for the Senate to consider it.

The revised legislation would still provide many workers with up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they are being tested or treated for coronavirus or have been diagnosed with it. Also eligible would be those who have been told by a doctor or government official to stay home because of exposure or symptoms.

Under the revised bill, however, those payments would be capped at $511 a day, roughly what someone making $133,000 earns annually. The original measure called for workers to receive their full pay but limited federal reimbursement to employers to that amount.

Also, workers with family members affected by coronavirus and those whose children’s schools have closed would still receive up to two-thirds of their pay, though that benefit would now be limited to $200 a day.

Paid sick leave is especially important now because it helps keep Americans from going to their jobs if they feel ill, experts said.

“You wouldn’t have to choose between a paycheck and going to work and exposing people to coronavirus,” said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Also curtailed was the bill’s paid family leave provision, which now calls for providing workers with two-thirds of their pay for up to another 10 weeks only if their children’s schools are closed. The revisions also limit those payments to $200 a day, which would cover two-thirds of the typical daily wage of someone earning up to $75,000 annually, Romig said.

The original bill would also have covered a worker who has been diagnosed, tested or quarantined or is being treated for coronavirus, or someone caring for an affected family member. And it would have only placed a cap on employers’ reimbursements from the federal government, not on the funds workers receive.

The changes to the family leave provision is a “huge erosion” of the original bill, said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at New America, a left-leaning think tank.

“The bill no longer protects workers who need to deal with a longer-term health need of their own or a family members’ related to coronavirus,” she said.

Businesses, particularly small employers, had raised concerns that they could not afford to offer such benefits, even if they would be largely reimbursed by the federal government through quarterly tax credits.

A small business industry group said the bill would impose “potentially unsustainable mandates” on its members. Many have already been negatively affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Kevin Kuhlman, senior director at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, wrote in a letter Friday to House leaders.

“Unfortunately, some small employers simply do not have the operating budget to afford paid family and medical leave,” Kuhlman wrote. “By requiring small businesses to shoulder additional burdens and costs, small businesses who cannot afford to keep up will close.”

The paid leave provisions in the original bill would have cost just over $100 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. They would expire at the end of the year.

The Senate could vote this week on the bill, though it appeared to hit a speed bump Monday amid objections by Republicans and a suggestion by President Donald Trump that the Senate would make further changes to the measure. The President had previously signaled his support of the House bill.

The revised legislation also specifies that employers could exclude health care workers and emergency responders from either paid leave provision, amid fears of staffing shortages among medical providers. The original measure would have given that power only to the Department of Labor.

That leaves open the possibility that some health care workers with coronavirus might not get paid, Romig said.

Under the legislation, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees could apply for financial hardship waivers from the leave provisions affecting workers whose children’s schools have closed.

The vast majority of the 35 million workers at these small firms currently lack paid family leave, said Sarah Jane Glynn, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Also, as part of a compromise with the White House last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed that the bill would not apply to the roughly 60 million Americans who work at companies with 500 employees or more – though 89% of these folks already receive paid sick leave.

That still leaves about 6.7 million people at these big firms without access to either federal or corporate paid sick time off, Glynn said.

Even those who receive the benefit typically get only seven or eight days, depending on their tenure at the job, she said. That’s less than the 14 days of isolation that health officials recommend for those infected with or exposed to coronavirus.

Still, the legislation would extend paid leave to many workers – including part-timers, the self-employed and those in the gig economy – who don’t typically have such a benefit. The latter two would receive tax credits equal to what they would have been paid during that period.

The federal government would pick up the full tab by giving companies refundable tax credits quarterly based on their Social Security payroll taxes. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Saturday that the department would advance funds to businesses concerned about their cash flows.

Many details, including what documentation must be provided, have yet to be worked out.

The US is one of the few developed nations without national standards on paid sick leave, though a dozen states, the District of Columbia and several municipalities have mandated it. Also, five states have paid family leave programs in place now.

Nearly a quarter of workers don’t have paid sick leave, according to federal data. And among those in the leisure and hospitality industries, who often deal with the public at places like restaurants and hotels, fewer than half can take a paid sick day.

Among the lowest-paid employees, only half have access to sick leave. And many gig economy workers, such as those who drive for Uber and Lyft and who deliver food, are considered independent contractors and don’t receive benefits such as sick days.

CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.