On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law, creating a third stimulus package since the COVID-19 pandemic started one year ago. The ARPA focuses on several employment-related economic benefits such as paid sick leave, financial support for small businesses and enhanced unemployment benefits. Here’s the main ARPA points that employers should know.
Emergency paid sick leave updates
One of the first COVID-19-related federal bills passed last year, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), created a new emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) and expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act (E-FMLA). Together, these entitlements helped provide paid leave to workers for several COVID-19-related reasons, including to isolate and get tested as well as school and childcare closures. Employers benefitted from a tax credit for paying for the leave.
As previously reported, the mandate to provide FFCRA leave expired on December 31, 2020. But the second stimulus bill, the Heroes Act, allowed employers to continue voluntarily providing EPSL and E-FMLA that employees didn’t use in 2020 and receive the tax benefit through March 31, 2021. The ARPA goes a little further than the Heroes Act but stopped short of reinstating the employer mandate. Here are some of the key changes ARPA made to the EPSL and E-FMLA leaves:
- Providing EPSL and E-MFLA remains entirely voluntary. Employers can still claim tax credits through September 30, 2021, as long as employers follow the rules.
- Employers who provide EPSL may now offer it for employees who take time off to obtain a vaccine or recover from a vaccine-related injury, illness or other condition; or while an employee is seeking a COVID-19 test or diagnosis due to an exposure or at the employer’s discretion.
- An employer may provide E-FMLA for all qualifying reasons under EPSL.
- Employees who already used their EPSL allotment may get another 80 hours starting April 1, 2021.
- Employers who choose to provide EPSL and E-FMLA must do so for all classes of employees.
Passed last year, the first stimulus bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, originally boosted state unemployment insurance systems multiple times through increased benefit amounts, duration of eligibility and expansion of eligibility to workers not normally eligible.
The Heroes Act and the ARPA continue to provide enhanced unemployment benefits, including an additional $300 per week in addition to state benefits and the ability to continue receiving unemployment benefits for 53 more weeks after the initial 24 weeks of unemployment ends.
Employers have little control over whether a current or former employee is eligible but should always respond to requests for information from their state agencies such as California’s Employment Development Department (EDD). The EDD now allows employers to register to receive claim notices electronically which helps employers promptly respond to claims.
Small business financial assistance
Last year, the CARES Act also created the Paycheck Program Program (PPP), which allowed businesses to apply for forgivable loans to help keep employees on the payroll. The Heroes Act provided an opportunity for small, hard-hit businesses to receive a second loan. The ARPA has expanded access to this program as well as several other financial assistance programs that the Small Business Administration (SBA) administers. Employers looking for further financial relief should review the programs available at the SBA’s website.