Government affairs

Legislative Updates

Fourth COVID-19 Relief Package Signed Into Law

Following months of failed negotiations between leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the White House, a fourth COVID-19 relief package was signed into law today as a part of the FY 2021 government spending.

The $2.3 trillion combined omnibus/relief package includes $1.4 trillion to keep the government funded until Sept. 30, 2021 and $900 billion for COVID-19 relief.

House Democratic leaders previously had called for a comprehensive $3.4 trillion deal in additional relief funding, while Senate Republican leaders failed to advance two packages in the $600 billion to $900 billion range. The vast difference in between the two chambers resulted in a months-long stalemate with the last relief package being signed into law in March.

In the end, it was the efforts of a bipartisan group of senators, prompted to act by the House Problem Solvers Caucus (a group whose influence has risen in Congress with its ability to identify areas of commonality and elevate legislation on those issues) that led to the deal. In fact, the Problem Solvers Caucus was instrumental in passage of the Postal Service Fairness Act (H.R. 2382), which moved to repeal USPS’s mandate to pre-fund retiree health benefits. That bill was passed in the House earlier this year but was not taken up in the Senate.

With regards to the Postal Service, the Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act of 2020 includes language converting the $10 billion loan previously approved in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (Public Law 116-136) into a grant. That is a far cry from the $25 billion public-service appropriation NALC supported to help the Postal Service cover COVID-19 expenses. On the appropriations front, the government funding measure preserved six-day language for mail delivery.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 deal failed to include hazard pay for letter carriers and other front-line employees. The deal also failed to include an extension of paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave provisions for employees whose school or child-care is closed due to COVID-19, or the mandate for emergency paid sick leave, which provided up to 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-19-related absences. Both provisions went into effect in April under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) but expired Dec. 31, 2020. Instead, lawmakers included a tax credit for employers who choose to extend emergency paid sick leave, thus ending the mandate.

“Members of Congress will need to step up to the plate in the next Congress for letter carriers and the Postal Service,” NALC President Fredric Rolando said. “NALC remains steadfast in ensuring that letter carriers and the network are protected, and we expect the new administration and Congress to do the same as we remain on the front lines of this pandemic.”

The deal includes $166 billion for another round of direct payments to taxpayers —$600 per adult making under $75,000 adjusted gross income and $600 per child. Initially, the President refused to sign the relief and funding bill, demanding a minimum of $2,000 payments. The demand was backed by House Democrats, who responded by immediately passing legislation to increase payments. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused the request due to objections within his Republican caucus.

Other provisions included in the relief measure are $120 billion for a 10-week extension of unemployment insurance in the amount of $300 per week; $325 billion for small businesses, mostly for an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program (not including unions); $12 billion for community banks; $45 billion for transportation—including $14 billion in airline payroll support; $69 billion for vaccine testing, tracing and distribution; $82 billion for schools; $25 billion in rental assistance and an eviction moratorium through Jan. 31, 2021; $26 billion for nutrition assistance and agricultural losses; $10 billion for child care assistance and $7 billion to expand broadband.

The deal also makes COVID-19 relief funds available for states and localities for another year, includes an extension of employee retention tax credit, allows lower-income Americans who experienced wage loss in 2020 to use earned income tax from 2019 to receive larger refunds, and allows agencies to reimburse contractors who were unable to work due to COVID-19-related facility closures.

Notably absent from the deal were two points of major contention between the parties. Democrats ended up dropping demands for nearly $1 billion in additional state and local funding, while Republicans abandoned their demand for liability protections for corporations worried about COVID-19-related lawsuits from sick workers. Both issues are expected to re-emerge in the next round of relief and recovery negotiations in the new Congress.

Relief and recovery efforts are far from over. House Democratic leadership and the incoming Biden administration have referred to the compromise as a down-payment of sorts on additionally needed relief. In the Senate, the balance of leadership, hinges on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoff elections on January 5, where two seats are up for grabs. If both seats change hands, Democrats will control the relief agenda. If Republicans retain control of one or both seats, Republicans will once again make those determinations.


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