The federal government has taken numerous actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy and job market. Congress enacted three significant laws in 2020 with key economic protections for workers and businesses:
Additionally, President Donald Trump signed at least four executive orders and federal agencies have adopted numerous rules and regulations to address the pandemic’s impact on public health and the economy.
While these federal actions have not directly targeted workers with disabilities, they affect workers broadly, including those with disabilities. The FFCRA expanded access to paid medical leave for workers exposed to or infected with COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Labor issued further regulations clarifying that when a worker misses work due to an interruption in services for a family member with disabilities, that worker may be eligible for the new paid medical leave program.
The CARES Act largely focused on economic stimulus and income protection. Eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits was extended to workers experiencing temporary layoffs due to COVID-19, including local and state emergency orders forcing the closure of nonessential workplaces. Additionally, the CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for workers who do not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits―like gig workers and part-time employees. Recipients of federal disability benefits sometimes turn to part-time and gig work to supplement their federal cash benefits. In July 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor clarified that federal disability benefit recipients are also eligible for the PUA benefits if they experienced unemployment due to the pandemic.
The CARES Act temporarily provided an additional $600 per week to individuals receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits, extended benefits and PUA. This benefit expired in July 2020. It was replaced through a Presidential Memorandum in August 2020 with a new benefit of up to $400 per week for unemployed workers. To receive federal funding, states must meet various federal requirements, including contributing at least $100 of the weekly benefit. States were permitted to opt out of the funding match requirement, resulting in benefits of $300 per week. States that participated received a federal grant to fund the program for six weeks.
The CARES Act also included nearly $1 billion to support older Americans and people with disabilities experiencing disruptions to home and community-based services. It also prevents states from seeking waivers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
For local and state governments, the CARES Act awarded $150 billion in aid to cover the costs of the health and economic emergencies. Each state received a minimum of $1.25 billion to use at its discretion as long as it wasn’t supplementing existing state services and was directly related to the pandemic.
Since March, states have worked expeditiously to implement the various federal laws, appropriations, regulations and guidelines issued in response to the pandemic. The sudden spike in unemployment claims, along with expansions in benefits, required states to revamp their unemployment insurance processes. States implemented new programs, such as the PUA, from the ground up within a matter of weeks.
Emergency management is largely a state and local responsibility. Governors from all 50 states and U.S. territories issued major disaster declarations in response to the pandemic as a formal request to the president for emergency response assistance from the federal government. Governors from 42 states issued stay-at-home orders preventing public gatherings and encouraging a shift to telework among nonessential businesses. These states varied widely on the level of restrictions in stay-at-home orders, including the types of businesses that could remain open and in the definition of essential workers.
The pandemic’s economic impact reaches many policy areas and states have been busy seeking ways to minimize that impact. The CARES Act awarded state and local governments funding to support their pandemic response efforts though the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). The federal program gives states flexibility in how they can use the CRF funds, including several uses to minimize the economic impact. A common approach has been to award grants to small businesses in some of the hardest hit industries like food services and child care. Iowa, for example, awarded $100 million to farmers. Louisiana provided $40 million to small businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans. Oregon used CRF funds to issue $500 stimulus checks to state residents. Florida and Colorado have provided housing support to those at risk of eviction and foreclosure.
States face myriad policy challenges resulting from COVID-19 that directly affect people with disabilities. Examples include expanding access to broadband internet, ensuring safe workspaces and encouraging effective accommodations for those at a higher risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms. All these challenges come at a time when state budgets and resources are under tremendous strain. States are also transitioning into economic recovery mode and looking at longer-term issues around workforce development to bring unemployed workers back into the workforce.