Senate May Not Pass Coronavirus Paid Sick Leave Anytime Soon Because GOP Opposes Sick Leave Costs

The bipartisan stimulus package approved by the House over the weekend that was designed to alleviate economic stress on workers amid the coronavirus pandemic likely won't be immediately passed by the Senate when members return Monday afternoon.

Although the bill, which includes requiring certain companies to provide paid sick leave and the government to give free virus testing and food aid, was supported by the majority of House Republicans and received the backing of President Donald Trump, hurdles remain with Senate Republicans.

"I fear that rather than offering a workable solution, the House bill will exacerbate the problem by forcing small businesses to pay wages they cannot afford and 'helping' them go further into debt," Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement over the weekend. He suggested existing state unemployment funds should be used instead.

"I hope the Senate will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm—or, if it won't, pass nothing at all," Johnson added.

Some GOP senators have expressed concerns over the cost to smaller businesses for offering employees two weeks of paid sick leave, the time period in which health officials say it could take for someone with the virus to begin experiencing symptoms.

"We shouldn't be imposing a big, new federal mandate on businesses that are struggling to stay alive in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the health committee, said last week.

Coronavirus paid sick leave Senate Republicans
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the Senate Republican policy luncheon which both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended on March 10 in Washington, DC. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty

The worry among Republicans persists despite Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to come to an agreement on the stimulus bill, saying the legislation provides relief to businesses who may be fiscally strained by paid sick leave. It provides a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement for coronavirus related sick leave costs, he said, adding that Treasury will "use its regulatory authority to advance funds to employers." That includes making advances to small businesses and for employers to use cash deposited with the IRS.

Although Trump backed the bill and Mnuchin and Pelosi spent days negotiating its terms, the president signaled Monday that the Senate won't simply accept the relief legislation and will make changes. "We may go back and forth with the House," he said.

Because the Senate is already addressing a FISA surveillance bill with a procedural vote Monday night that was already passed by the House, the chamber would need unanimous consent to turn its attention toward the coronavirus bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said over the weekend that they are "carefully reviewing the details" of the stimulus package and will act after it receives the final version from the House.

And there remains another source of delay. Due to technical changes the House needs to still make to the bill's text—likely the result of last-minute edits made before lawmakers voted around 12:30 a.m. Saturday—it will need to pass the legislation again, likely by unanimous consent because the chamber is on recess this week. Any member could prevent this from happening. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) has threatened to do so until he's about to read the final version in full.

We still do not have a final draft of the negotiated changes being called ’technical corrections’ and some of us believe that the newly worded laws should be finished before we pass them. #CoronaVirus

— Louie Gohmert (@replouiegohmert) March 16, 2020

"We're still waiting on the House to reach a decision on technical corrections and submit a final product to us," McConnell said Monday.

But in the Senate, Democrats and some Republicans have advocated for the swift and immediate passage of stimulus legislation amid heightened fears that a recession is inevitable thanks to a spiraling stock market, and nationwide school and business closures.

"FISA needs to be carefully reviewed. That takes time. That can wait," Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote in a tweet. "The emergency response to #coronavirus should be the first order of business in the Senate tomorrow. There is no reason for this to take days & days."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has chastised McConnell for allowing senators to leave Thursday and not return until Monday afternoon. The chamber scrapped a previously scheduled recess this week to address FISA and coronavirus.

"We cannot wait," Schumer said in a floor speech Monday. "It was my preference to keep the senate in session over the weekend so that we could have passed this bill already, but Leader McConnell, regrettably and almost inexplicably, decided to send everyone home and then call them back today."

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have agreed that no matter the fate of the paid sick leave legislation, there will be future economic stimulus measures to come in the near future.