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President Biden’s latest COVID-19 stimulus package – the American Rescue Plan – has been passed by Congress and will become law once the president signs it into effect this Friday (3/12/21). The measure provides $1.9 trillion in economic relief, with many of the specific items directly affecting employers. What do businesses need to know about this finalized legislation?

What Is Not Included In The American Rescue Plan?

Before examining the areas of law that changed, it is just as important to review portions of the initial proposal which were not included in the final version signed by the president. The three most critical pieces NOT included:

  • $15 Minimum Wage: Despite House passage of a bill including a minimum wage hike and efforts by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, the Senate (with bipartisan support) removed the minimum wage provisions from the American Rescue Plan before sending it to Biden for signature.
  • Elimination of Tip Credit: Though it has gotten little press, buried in the provisions to raise the minimum wage was language which would have phased the tip credit out of existence. Hospitality employers hope this is more than a temporary reprieve.
  • Paid Leave: The White House originally planned for the plan to include paid leave for employees needing to be absent for COVID-19 reasons, including to get vaccinated or to recover from side effects related to the vaccination. These paid leave benefits were not included in the House bill and were not added as the bill proceeded.

What You Should Do: While these provisions did not make it into the final American Rescue Plan, the White House and Democratic leaders have stated their intent to introduce new legislation in the future to fulfill these campaign promises.

Extension Of FFCRA Tax Credits

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on December 31, 2020 – and with it, covered employers’ obligation to provide emergency paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave. Shortly before the end of the year, Congress extended the tax credit for employers who voluntarily continued to provide such paid leave through March 31, 2021. 

President Biden’s original vision for the American Rescue Plan proposed to extend and expand emergency paid leave obligations in several key areas. However, the House version of the current COVID-19 relief bill does not extend the employer obligation to provide paid leave. Instead, the legislation merely extends the tax credit for voluntary provision of leave through September 30, 2021 and makes related changes. These provisions of the relief bill include the following:

  • Extends the tax credits available for employers who voluntarily provide FFCRA leave from March 31, 2021 to September 30, 2021.
  • Provides that the tax credits are available for paid sick leave and paid family leave provided for the additional following qualifying reasons:
    • the employee is obtaining immunization (vaccination) related to COVID-19;
    • the employee is recovering from any injury, disability, illness or condition related to such vaccination; or
    • the employee is seeking or awaiting the results of a diagnostic test or medical diagnosis for COVID-19 (or their employer has requested such a test or diagnosis).
  • Adds non-discrimination rules to provide that no tax credit is available if the employer, in determining availability of the paid leave, discriminates against highly compensated employees, full-time employees, or employees on the basis of tenure with the employer. This provision appears designed to compel employers who make the decision to voluntarily provide leave do so in a uniform manner, without discriminating against certain categories of workers.
  • Re-sets the 10-day limit for the tax credit for paid sick leave under the FFCRA beginning April 1, 2021. As a result, an employer could voluntarily provide an additional 10 days of FFCRA paid sick leave beginning April 1, 2021, and would be eligible for a tax credit for doing so. But employers are not required to do so.

Even though the current legislation does not extend the employer mandate to provide paid FFCRA leave, this is likely not the last conversation on this topic. There are indications that the Biden administration may attempt to resurrect pieces of the American Rescue Plan that did not make it into this bill into subsequent legislation in the near future.  

What You Should DoDetermine which, if any, state and local paid sick leave laws may apply to you as many have been extended beyond the December 31, 2020 expiration of the FFCRA paid leave mandate. In addition, you should continue to monitor developments at the federal level. Although an extension of paid leave was not included in this stimulus package, it is still on the Biden administration’s and many members of Congress’s “to do” list. We could see new leave mandate proposals in the immediate future, so this will be one area to watch closely.

Boost For Vaccine Efforts

The American Rescue Plan provides over $15 billion aimed toward enhancing, expanding and improving the nationwide distribution and administration of vaccines, including the support of efforts to increase access, especially in underserved communities, to increase vaccine confidence and to fund more research, development, manufacturing, and procurement of vaccines and related supplies as needed. The upshot? We may see the widespread proliferation of vaccine availability even earlier than expected.

What You Should Do: Despite developments indicating that vaccines are likely to become much more widely available in the short term, many employers remain unprepared to deal with related issues. Those issues include not only the initial administration process, but also the extent to which the greater prevalence of vaccinated employees may (or may not) affect your safety protocols in terms of mask mandates, physical distancing, and related rules. 

Relief For Small Businesses

The American Rescue Plan Act provides additional funding for small businesses, with a focused effort on those in hard-hit industries like restaurants and bars. The new bill provides $25 billion for a new Small Business Administration program focused on supporting restaurants and other food and drinking establishments. These grants are available for up to $10 million for those eligible and can be used to pay expenses like payroll, mortgage, rent, utilities, and food and beverages.

The bill provides an additional $7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides small businesses with the potential for 100% forgivable loans. The additional PPP funding brings the total for the current round of the program to over $813 billion. Likewise, both bills expand PPP eligibility for certain nonprofit organizations.

The new law also provides $15 billion to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Advance program designed to provide economic relief to businesses currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. Like the PPP, the EIDL program is administered through the SBA to help qualifying businesses meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met had the disaster not occurred. Priority funding is also allocated to businesses with less than 10 employees that the pandemic has severely impacted.

Finally, the law includes funding under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which had previously appropriated $15 billion in the December 2020 stimulus package. Eligible entities for the SVOG include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operators, and talent representatives. Eligible entities for the SVOG program can also qualify for loans under the PPP.

What You Should Do: If you’re a small business operating in a hard-hit industry such as the hospitality sector, you should quickly determine eligibility for funding. Even if you’re not a bar or a restaurant, you might still be eligible for economic assistance through the various grants or loan programs detailed in the plan if the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted your business.  

Unemployment Benefits

President Biden considers it imperative that workers impacted by the pandemic not lose out on emergency enhanced unemployment benefits, but the expanded unemployment assistance under the CARES Act and Stimulus 2.0 are set to expire soon in mid-March. Without an extension, millions of unemployed Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic would be impacted. Luckily, both the House’s and Senate’s versions of the American Rescue Plan increase and further extend these unemployment benefits. However, there were some key differences between the two versions of the proposal, and the finalized version differs from the initial proposal.

The finalized legislation retains the $300 per week unemployment benefits, however, the version signed into law extends these benefits until September 6, which is more in alignment with Biden’s proposed outline for the American Rescue Plan. 

Another major change related to the unemployment benefits in the finalized version is the addition of a provision making the first $10,200 in unemployment received in 2020 non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000. This provision will go a long way to address the looming concerns for the millions of Americans currently on unemployment insurance.

What You Should DoThere is not much for employers to do in response to this provision of the bill, as it is primarily geared toward workers. However, it is important to understand the lay of the land in terms of unemployment insurance, as certain industries may face obstacles in hiring for certain positions for the time being. You should be aware that the benefits will expire on September 6 and adjust your hiring plans accordingly.

Stimulus Payments

The American Rescue Plan means that the federal government will send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the December stimulus bill. Under the structure agreed to during lawmaking negotiations, the payments will phase out at a quicker rate for those at higher income levels compared with the initial proposal floated by President Biden. Those earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 will still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit but those earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more than $160,000 will not be eligible.

Tax Credits And Benefits

The bill expands three important tax credits: the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and the employee retention credit. The bill also increases certain health and pension benefits.    

  • The bill increases the child tax credit from $2,000 per child under age 17 to $3,000 for those age six through 17 and to $3,600 for those under age 6. Currently, the credit phases out at $200,000 for single tax return filers and $400,000 for joint filers. The new bill lowers those thresholds to $75,000 and $150,000 respectively. Another key provision makes the credit fully refundable – meaning that those who pay little or no taxes will still be able to take full advantage of the credit. Recipients can receive monthly installments (which would facilitate paying monthly living expenses) or a lump sum.
  • The earned income credit for lower income taxpayers has also been expanded. The amount has nearly tripled and the minimum age to claim to the credit is reduced from 25 to 19. No upper age limit is imposed under the new bill.
  • The employee retention credit (ERC) is extended through December 31, 2021. It also is expanded to include certain start-up businesses (with an ERC capped at $50,000 per quarter) that otherwise would not have qualified for the ERC.

The bill also provides for a 100% COBRA premium subsidy effective April 1 through September 2021 for those who are involuntarily terminated and want to remain on their employer’s health insurance. The employer would pass along the subsidy so that qualifying individuals would pay nothing for their COBRA coverage during this period.   

Finally, the bill expands the class of those who are entitled to help with the cost of their insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers would be able to receive assistance if their premiums exceed 8.5% of their incomes rather than the current income cutoff of $51,000. The bill provides over $24 billion to shore up childcare facilities which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It provides help to childcare workers making less than $12 per hour. 

Conclusion

We will keep a close eye on further legislative proposals and provide updates as warranted.

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