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The Long Road to the Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act (ECRA)

By: Bob Knight, Director of Government Relations and Workforce Policy

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck this past winter, Congress responded rapidly in a bipartisan spirit. President Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27 (the final of three large spending bills aimed at economic relief for individuals, families, and businesses hit hard by the resulting business closures and layoffs). The CARES Act alone had a price tag of $2 trillion (the largest spending package in U.S. history). In terms of direct spending and loan guarantees, the three bills combined approached $3 trillion in recovery spending.

At the time, many elected officials and some health experts predicted that the economy would begin to recover by late summer. Thus, most of this first-round spending ended over the course of the summer. Since unemployment is a lagging indicator, the various unemployment insurance programs and provisions in the CARES Act were put in place through the end of the year.

However, by Spring, it was apparent that the resulting economic recession would be deeper and longer than those March optimistic estimates. The House of Representatives responded with a bill that was even larger than the CARES Act; a $3 trillion proposal named the HEROES Act, which was mainly passed on a party-line vote of 208-199 on May 15. The matter was stalled for most of the summer as the Senate declined to take up the House-passed bill.

Negotiating a Deal

With the imperative of funding the regular activities of the federal government for the fiscal year that began on October 1, an opportunity to consider stimulus funding occurred in September. Initially, the Senate Republican leadership offered a proposal costing about $500 billion, and House Democratic leadership pared their proposal to about $2 trillion. Meanwhile, the federal government operated on a series of Continuing Resolutions (CR).

In the face of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, approaching winter, and the holiday season, a small bipartisan group of Senators found common ground on a price tag of about $900 billion. Their proposal included:

  • An extension of the unemployment insurance programs authorized under the CARES Act
  • Additional funding for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) to assist small businesses
  • Moderate funding for schools and to distribute vaccines

As the negotiation expanded to include House leadership and the White House, the decision to include direct payments to individuals and families, which occurred under the CARES Act, became an important selling point in gaining the final deal.

What’s In the ECRA?

The Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act is a 5,593-page bill that is two bills in one. One part funds the government for the remainder of Federal Fiscal Year 2021 at an estimated $1.3 trillion through September 30, 2021. The other portion is the $900 billion stimulus bill that has garnered most of the press attention over the past few months. The legislation is truly bipartisan, passing the Senate by a 91-7 vote only minutes before the federal government was scheduled to shut down. The overwhelming support shows the growing concern in Washington over the spike in coronavirus cases nationwide and the pandemic’s economic cost to millions of families and businesses.

In the end, the leadership in both the House and Senate had to give up something to gain passage. Republicans did not gain the immunity for employers related to outbreaks at workplaces. Democrats did not gain the fiscal support for states and cities that they had insisted on in earlier negotiations.

There is a lot in the new legislation that not even those voting on the bill could possibly know every detail. Some of the major points include:

  • $325 billion in business relief; most notably, $275 billion for the popular Payroll Protection Program
  • An 11-week extension of the various Unemployment Insurance programs with a weekly payment of $300 in addition to regular benefits
  • Direct payments of $600 to individuals who earned less than $75,000 in 2019, and payments to other family members based upon family income and dependent ages
  • $82 billion for schools
  • $20 billion for vaccine distribution
  • $13 billion for food stamps (SNAP)


Workforce Provisions in the ECRA

Proponents of the important role that workforce development must play in the economic recovery were disappointed to see no direct support for the workforce system. On a positive note, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding was approved with small increases in most cases for the Program Year beginning July 1, 2021 as follows:

  • WIOA Adult programs – $862,649,000
  • WIOA Youth programs – $921,130,000
  • WIOA Dislocated Worker programs received an increase of almost four percent– $1.062 billion
  • WIOA National Reserve received an increase of $10 million – $280,859,000
  • Job Corps was funded at its current operational level of $1.6 billion. The program gained many flexibility modifications that will allow it to respond more effectively to the challenges raised by the pandemic for a residential system.
  • The Senior Community Service Employment Program was level-funded at $405 million
  • All of the WIOA National Programs, including Native Americans, migrant and seasonal farmworkers, ex-offenders, and apprenticeships, were flat-funded or saw small increases


What’s Next for Workforce

Will there be a third stimulus bill this winter? The Biden Administration has signaled that additional aid will be needed, and they intend to push for new funding for the recovery. The House added some $2 billion to the workforce accounts in the HEROES Act. The House Education and Labor Committee is inclined to authorize even more money. However, the Senate will prove to be a tough sell due to the ambitious goals of individuals in the House.

The outcome of the double Senate election in Georgia will certainly play a role in how policy and spending unfold. However, what happens over the next two or three months will be just as important. Will the economy grow, and if so, how fast? Will the pandemic recede, and at what rate? We hope to see millions of people returning to work in 2021. What skills or jobs will be in demand in the emerging economy?

The workforce system will be a key resource in assisting employers in finding qualified employees and helping returning job seekers gain the skills that a changed economy will value. It’s up to us to convince Congress that the Future of Work demands a highly-skilled, highly efficient workforce system.