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'Beyond Incomprehensible': Bipartisan Covid Relief Package Would Let Paid Sick and Family Leave Expire

"Extending emergency paid leave at the height of a pandemic is not only something we can afford, it's something we can't afford not to do."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress on December 1, 2020.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks alongside a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress on December 1, 2020. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

An updated version of the $908 billion bipartisan coronavirus relief proposal currently under negotiation on Capitol Hill does not include an extension of federal paid sick and family leave programs set to expire at the end of the year, an omission that could deprive nearly 90 million workers of key benefits as the pandemic intensifies.

Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, told HuffPost Wednesday that the proposal's exclusion of paid leave benefits is "an affront to all reason," particularly given how successful the programs have been in preventing coronavirus infections.

"It's beyond incomprehensible, short-sighted, and ridiculous given the public health benefits that are proven and the growing number of parents home with kids."
—Vicki Shabo, New America
According to research published in the journal Health Affairs in October, paid leave benefits mandated under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) prevented an estimated 400 coronavirus cases each day per state in the U.S.

"It's beyond incomprehensible, short-sighted, and ridiculous given the public health benefits that are proven and the growing number of parents home with kids," said Shabo.

Approved by Congress and signed into law in March, the FFCRA requires many employers to provide workers infected by or exposed to the coronavirus with up to two weeks of sick leave at full pay. The law also provides up to 12 weeks of emergency family leave, only 10 of which are paid.

Despite the programs' inadequacies, paid leave advocates warned that letting the benefits expire would be a huge mistake.

"Extending emergency paid leave at the height of a pandemic is not only something we can afford, it's something we can't afford not to do," tweeted Paid Leave for All, a campaign fighting for universal family and medical leave. "It is one of the most cost-effective tools to save lives and jobs."

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The exclusion of paid leave is just one of several major issues progressives have raised in response to the bipartisan relief proposal, which was first unveiled last week by a group of lawmakers including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah.).

Another major omission progressives have spotlighted is direct stimulus payments, a form of relief that is overwhelmingly popular—and needed—among Americans across the political spectrum. Speaking to reporters last week, Collins acknowledged the popularity of direct payments before brushing aside calls for their inclusion in the bipartisan package.

"This is an emergency, and the U.S. government must respond. Any Covid agreement must include at least $1,200 in direct payments for adults, $500 for kids, and supplemental unemployment benefits."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

"I know there's considerable public support for it," said Collins, but right now we're targeting struggling families, failing businesses, healthcare workers, and we don't have a stimulus check to every single person, regardless of need."

While recent movement—and seeming progress—in relief negotiations sparked some hope that lawmakers could be close to a deal after months of fruitless back-and-forth, Politico reported Wednesday that "the stimulus talks are back to where they've been for months: nowhere."

"Congressional leaders have retreated to their corners, blaming each other for inaction as the economy teeters on the brink of shambles and the U.S. nears 300,000 dead from the virus," Politico noted. "Time is running short in the lame duck, with as few as nine days for Congress to deliver much-needed relief."

In addition to the bipartisan relief framework that is still being fleshed out, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Trump White House have put forth their own stimulus proposals—both of which were immediately rejected over their exclusion of a weekly boost to unemployment benefits.

"Millions are unemployed, facing eviction, have no health insurance, and [are] going hungry," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Wednesday. "This is an emergency, and the U.S. government must respond. Any Covid agreement must include at least $1,200 in direct payments for adults, $500 for kids, and supplemental unemployment benefits."

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