Congress Passes Coronavirus Package, But Do People Living With HIV Benefit?

This past week, AIDS United and more than 90 other HIV and LGBTQ+ organizations sent a letter to Congress outlining the steps that we believe they need to take in order to ensure the health and safety of people living with HIV during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. In this document, we called on federal decisionmakers to acknowledge the increased risk of COVID-19 illness and death faced by many people living with HIV and to craft a relief package that takes the unique needs of this population into account. At the same time, we advocated for a coronavirus response that not only benefited people living with and affected by HIV, but all people living in the United States—regardless of immigration status—who are heightened risk of serious complications from COVID-19, particularly older adults and those living with chronic health conditions.

As part of our broader ask, we called on Congress to enact H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This relief package, which passed by the House of Representatives last Saturday, would have included: free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured; paid emergency leave with both 14 days of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave; enhanced unemployment insurance; strengthened food security initiatives; increased federal funds for Medicaid; and clear protections for frontline workers, including health care workers and other workers who are in contact with those who have been exposed or are responsible for cleaning at-risk places.

By Wednesday evening, the Senate had passed, and the President had signed into law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. However, in the days since the House passed their version, the law had been significantly pared back, with the benefits outlined within it reduced both in size and scope. In the end, the passed version of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided paid sick days to only about half of America’s workforce and included a number of carve outs for both big and small businesses, with the guarantee for paid sick leave to workers diagnosed with or in quarantine for COVID-19 only applying to business with between 50 and 499 employees. As a result, The Washington Post estimates that only 12% of workers at “essential businesses” like grocery stores and pharmacies that will be expected to stay open during the outbreak will be guaranteed coverage by the bill. The final bill also eliminated all extended paid family and medical leave for personal illness and family care, only keeping in the original extended leave provisions around wage replacement for parents facing extended children’s school or child care closures.

When it comes to coronavirus relief packages, the devil is truly in the details. It is easy for many people living with and affected by HIV to see headlines about Congress providing over $100 billion in sick leave and other benefits in response to COVID-19 and assume that it applies to them. It’s only after folks make their way down to the fine print that they find out that said $100 billion doesn’t cover them if they work for Walmart or Safeway or your average small business.

The importance of not just looking at the top line numbers is particularly high when it comes to the next coronavirus package being considered by The White House and Congress. On Thursday evening, Senate Republicans released a roughly $1 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus package that would focus money on support for small businesses, direct cash payments to individuals, loans to industries impacted by the virus and additional funding for the health care industry.

Among the four “pillars” of this plan, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called them, the one getting the most attention is the direct cash payments to individuals. The legislation would provide checks of up to $1,200 for individuals making below $75,000, with an additional $500 provided for every child. However, these payments would be based on adjusted gross income from 2018 and would vary based on whether or not they paid any income tax. Individuals or families that did not earn enough to have any federal income tax liability in 2018 would only receive about $600 from the federal government, while middle class earners who made below $75,000 but still had a high enough income to pay some federal income tax would receive the full $1,200. The Senate GOP’s legislation would also include $58 billion in loans for commercial and cargo airlines, as well as $150 billion in loans for other “eligible businesses” that could include the hotel and cruise industries.

In a joint statement in response to the Senate GOP’s coronavirus economic stimulus package, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer committed to meeting the needs of workers and addressing health care concerns around COVID-19.  The statement made mention of creating a new “Marshall Plan to rebuild our health care infrastructure on a continental scale” and also emphasized Congressional Democrats desire to put money “directly into the hands of those who need it most.”

AIDS United will continue to monitor the federal response to COVID-19 in addition to our standard coverage of the annual Congressional budget and appropriations processes. Please check back frequently with AIDS United’s Policy Update for all the latest information.