On Thursday May 28, 2020, the House passed H.R. 7010, the Paycheck Protection Program Flexiblity Act of 2020 by a vote of 417-1. The legislation would relax various requirements for small businesses accessing the loans and loan forgiveness originally provided in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) enacted in H.R. 748 on March 27, 2020. In particular, H.R. 7010 would extend the period of time businesses have to spend their PPP loans and would reduce the percentage that must be spent on payroll (from 75% to 60%) to qualify for loan forgiveness. Additionally, for those loan funds that must be repaid, the bill delays and extends the repayment period.
On May 25, 2020, several Uber and Lyft drivers sued the NY Department of Labor contending that their claims for unemployment benefits have been delayed because the Department is incorrectly processing their claims as those of independent contractors not employees — even though The New York State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board ruled in 2018 that three Uber drivers (and other similarly situated individuals) were employees for purposes of the State’s Unemployment Insurance Program. (State of New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board, Decision in the Matter of Uber Technologies, Inc. Appeal Board No. 596722, A.L.J. Case No. 016-234949 (July 12, 2018)).
This week’s plaintiffs explain the harm in the context of the current pandemic: “[Despite the State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board rulings, the] DOL has continued to treat app-based drivers’ applications as though they are independent contractors, placing the burden on drivers to prove their earnings and employment status. As the DOL has not required app-based car service companies to supply their earnings data, drivers’ benefit rates cannot be determined, delaying the delivery of benefits to drivers by months.”
The CBO has updated its economic projections through the end of 2021 to account for the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. The CBO estimates that the real (inflation-adjusted) GDP will contract by 11 percent in the second quarter of 2020, which is equivalent to a decline of 38 percent at an annual rate. Furthermore, the number of people employed in the second quarter of 2020 will be almost 26 million lower than the number in the fourth quarter of 2019. The CBO also considers the effects of recent legislation, noting that “greater federal spending and lower revenues will cause real GDP and employment to be higher over the next few years than they would be otherwise.” However, in CBO’s assessment, “as long as some degree of social distancing remains in place, the economic boost that might be expected from recent legislation will be smaller than it would be during a period of economic weakness without social distancing.”
The report — “Questions About the CARES Act’s $500 Billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Funds” — focuses on the CARES Act’s provision of $500 billion to the Treasury Department for lending to businesses and to state and local governments. Notably, it finds that “Treasury has not disbursed any of the $46 billion it can use to provide loans and loan guarantees to the airline industry and businesses critical to maintaining national security.” Furthermore, “the Treasury has only disbursed $37.5 billion of CARES Act funds, which were invested in the Fed’s Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility.” The report sets forth a list of “general and specific questions” for the Commission’s future work.
Late on Friday May 15, 2020, the most recent round of COVID-19 funding legislation, H.R. 6800, The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (“HEROES Act), passed the House by a mostly partisan vote of 208-199. The bill, which was introduced in the House earlier this week on May 12, 2020, includes approximately $3 trillion in relief for state and local governments, individuals, and the healthcare system.
On Wednesday May 13, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Wisconsin’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order in a 4-3 decision (see page 31-32 of the court’s opinion). The stay-at-home order — Emergency Order 28 — had been issued Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Designee Andrea Palm on March 24, 2020.
Although the legislature had requested that the court delay any order by a week to provide time for new transition rules, the court declined saying:
‘We have declared rights under the law wherein we have concluded that Emergency Order 28 is invalid and therefore, unenforceable. Although a very unusual request, on April 21, 2020, the Legislature asked this court to issue a temporary injunction of Emergency Order 28 but then requested a stay of that injunction for at least six days. We perceive this request as being grounded in a concern for an orderly transition from Order 28 to a lawful rule.
However, more than two weeks have passed since we began our consideration of this case. Therefore, we trust that the Legislature and Palm have placed the interests of the people of Wisconsin first and have been working together in good faith to establish a lawful rule that addresses COVID-19 and its devastating effects on Wisconsin. People, businesses and other institutions need to know how to proceed and what is expected of them. Therefore, we place the responsibility for this future law-making with the Legislature and DHS where it belongs.” (At pages 30-31) (Emphasis added).
Without a delay period, the court’s decision immediately lifted the state-wide restrictions. Businesses, however, continue to face any local limits and stay-at-home orders, such as those imposed by Milwaukee. But some bars opened immediately on Wednesday after the court’s decision.
The next major round of COVID-19 legislation, H.R. 6800, The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (“HEROES Act), was introduced in the house today, May 12, 2020. The package includes approximately $3 trillion in relief for state and local governments, individuals, and the healthcare system.
According to the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Appropriations summary , the bill includes, just in its funding for governments and financial services:
State Fiscal Relief – $500 billion in funding to assist state governments with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus.
Local Fiscal Relief – $375 billion in funding to assist local governments with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus.
Tribal Fiscal Relief – $20 billion in funding to assist Tribal governments with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus.
Fiscal Relief for Territories – $20 billion in funding to assist governments of the Territories with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus.
CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund Repayment to DC – Provides an additional $755 million for the District of Columbia to assist with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus
Treasury Inspector Generals – $35 million for the Treasury Inspector General for oversight of Coronavirus Fiscal Relief Fund payments to state and local governments, and $2.5 million for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration for oversight of IRS payments.
Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) – $1 billion for economic support and recovery in distressed communities by providing financial and technical assistance to CDFIs.
Tax Credit Implementation – $599 million for implementation of additional payments to individuals.
Assistance to Homeowners–$75 billion to states, territories, and tribes to address the ongoing needs of homeowners struggling to afford their housing due directly or indirectly to the impacts of the pandemic by providing direct assistance with mortgage payments, property taxes, property insurance, utilities, and other housing related costs.
Elections – $3.6 billion for grants to States for contingency planning, preparation, and resilience of elections for Federal office.
Broadband – $1.5 billion to close the homework gap by providing funding for Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices for students and library patrons, and $4 billion for emergency home connectivity needs.
Assisting Small Businesses – $10 billion in grants to small businesses that have suffered financial losses as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Office of Personnel Management Inspector General Office (OPM IG) – $1 million for the OPM IG to combat healthcare fraud associated with COVID-19.
General Services Administration Technology Modernization Fund – $1 billion in funding for technology-related modernization activities to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.
Postal Service – $25 billion for revenue forgone due to the coronavirus pandemic, plus language providing additional protections to Postal workers. An additional $15 million is provided for the Postal Service Inspector General for oversight of this funding.
Back in March 2020, the Fed had announced a plan to engage in the purchase of corporate bonds as part of its pandemic response to help stabilize credit markets. On May 11, 2020, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York announced that “the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF) [would] begin purchases of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) on May 12.”
Per its April 9, 2020 term sheet, the “SMCCF may purchase U.S.-listed ETFs whose investment objective is to provide broad exposure to the market for U.S. corporate bonds. The preponderance of ETF holdings will be of ETFs whose primary investment objective is exposure to U.S. investment-grade corporate bonds, and the remainder will be in ETFs whose primary investment objective is exposure to U.S. high-yield corporate bonds.” (See N.Y. Fed Statement). The Primary Corporate Credit Facility is expected to become operational in the “near future.”
The CARES Act legislation passed in late March 2020 included enhanced unemployment payments of $600 per week (Section 2104 of the Act). The Department of Labor, as part of Q&A guidance issued over the weekend on May 9, 2020, confirmed that part-time workers can be eligible to receive the extra $600 payments (Question A.4). The guidance also addressed other questions concerning payments, overpayments, recovery, and state reporting of the $600 payments (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).
The new guidance clarifies the terms of the $500 billion lending program for state and local governments. The Municipal Liquidity Facility will be available to U.S. states and the District of Columbia, U.S. cities with a population exceeding 250,000 residents, U.S. counties with a population exceeding 500,000 residents, and certain multi-state entities. The new guidance sets forth revised eligibility criteria, including the requirement that eligible issuers that are not multi-state entities must have been rated at least BBB-/Baa3 as of April 8, 2020 by two or more major nationally recognized statistical rating organizations. The term sheet also sets out pricing details. Pricing will be at a fixed interest rate based on a comparable maturity overnight index swap rate plus the applicable spread (ranging from 150 to 590 basis points) based on the long-term rating of the security for the eligible notes.
On Friday May 8, 2020, the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics released the unemployment rate for April 2020: 14.7%. During the Great Depression, the unemployment rate is believed to have reached 25%. During the Recession which began in December 2007, unemployment topped out at 10% in October 2008. One note about the current 14.7% rate — experts question whether it captures the full level of unemployment as the circumstances of the pandemic mean that many who are currently not working are not in a position to “actively” seek work. Additionally, unemployment is not borne equally across all populations, posing particular challenges in some industries, regions, socio-economic groups, and communities.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pulled its Technical Assistance Q&A regarding “return to work” for employees whom the employer believes are at a higher risk for severe illness if they were to contract COVID-19. The original guidance posted on Tuesday May 5, 2020 indicated that an employer could exclude an employee from returning to work solely because the employee has an underlying condition placing that worker at higher risk for serious COVID-19 illness.
The revised guidance released on Thursday May 7, 2020, now provides that: “If the employer is concerned about the employee’s health being jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, the ADA does not allow the employer to exclude the employee – or take any other adverse action – solely because the employee has a disability that the CDC identifies as potentially placing him at “higher risk for severe illness” if he gets COVID-19.” (Response to Question G4) (emphasis added).
An employer can only bar such an employee from returning to work if “the employee’s disability poses a ‘direct threat’ to his health that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” (Response to Question G4)
The new guidance extends deadlines that affect participants’ rights to healthcare coverage, portability, and continuation of group health plan coverage under COBRA. Among other changes, the guidance extends the normal 60-day period to elect COBRA continuation coverage and the date for making COBRA premium payments by the length of the “Outbreak Period,” which is defined as the period from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the announced end of the national emergency due to COVID-19 or such other date announced by the agency. The guidance also extends the timeframe for special enrollment in a group health plan under HIPPA, and the timeframe for participants to file benefit claims or appeals of denied claims.
The Small Business Administration released a statement Sunday providing details on Round 2 of the Paycheck Protection Program (the loan/grant program for small businesses initially enacted in the CARES Act and then refunded through supplemental legislation, H.R. 266, a few weeks later). The joint statement from the SBA and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin noted that in this second round of loans which began on April 27, 2020, over $175 billion has been disbursed through 2.2 million loans. The average loan size is now $79,000.
Responding to concerns that smaller lending institutions were closed out of the loan process in Round 1, the statement offers data on the lenders in this Round: “Nearly 500,000 of the loans were made by lenders with less than $1 billion in assets and non-banks. These lenders include Community Development Financial Institutions, Certified Development Companies, Microlenders, Farm Credit lending institutions, and FinTechs. Over 850,000 loans—about one third of the 2.2 million loans—were made by lenders with $10 billion of assets or less.”
Important questions remains, however, about exactly how these small businesses can ensure that the loans they are receiving through the Paycheck Protection Program qualify for loan forgiveness. These businesses and their advisors continue to await further guidance from the goverment. On Friday, the AICPA issued a statement urging immediate guidance on these time sensitive questions for businesseses.
On April 30, 2020, Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), announced new monetary policy measures in response to the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. At an ECB press conference, Largarde first set the stage for further action, observing (at 8:30 minutes in): “The euro area is facing an economic contraction of a magnitude and speed that are unprecedented in peacetime. Measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have largely halted economic activity in all the countries of the euro area and across the globe.”
After reviewing prior ECB action, Lagarde outlined (at 10:30 minutes in) new ECB steps including new incentives for bank lending: “Specifically, we decided to reduce the interest rate on TLTRO III [targeted longer-term refinancing] operations during the period from June 2020 to June 2021 to 50 basis points below the average interest rate on the Eurosystem’s main refinancing operations prevailing over the same period. Moreover, for counterparties whose eligible net lending reaches the lending performance threshold, the interest rate over the period from June 2020 to June 2021 will now be 50 basis points below the average deposit facility rate prevailing over the same period.” (See also Largarde’s written statement).