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Paid leave, unemployment assistance: What the federal government is doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic

How the US government responds to a pandemic
How the US government responds to a pandemic

Updated 3/18/2020 at 4:30 p.m.: This post was updated throughout on Wednesday.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is considering a slew of legislation and executive orders to respond to a crisis that has upended life in the United States and countries around the world.

Some of the biggest policy proposals so far include an announcement from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that the government is looking at mailing Americans cash assistance and legislation passed by Congress that provides paid sick leave to some American workers this year.

President Trump also announced that the federal government will waive interest payments on student loans during the crisis.

The federal government is announcing new policies each day, and specifics are changing quickly. But here's what is being considered or implemented so far for individuals.

Financial relief

At a press conference Tuesday, Mnuchin said the government is "looking at sending checks to Americans immediately," perhaps as soon as the next two weeks. "The president has instructed me that we have to do this now," Mnuchin said.

A fact sheet from Treasury says there would be two rounds of direct payments to individual taxpayers, issued beginning April 6 and May 18. "Payment amount would be fixed and tiered based on income level and family size," reads the fact sheet.

The administration has also reportedly considered a payroll tax cut. These cuts would only help those still getting a paycheck, meaning people who have been or will be laid off because of the coronavirus would not benefit directly.

The Federal Reserve also cut interest rates to zero and launched a quantitative easing program.

Paid sick leave

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by the House on on Saturday with major changes made to the bill Monday, requires some employers to provide full-time workers with 10 days (two weeks) of paid leave if they get sick from the virus. The provision expires at the end of the year. It also requires some employers to provide "up to three months of paid family and medical leave for people forced to quarantine due to the virus or care for children or family members because of the outbreak," CNBC reported.

The Senate passed the bill without changes Wednesday.

What is a pandemic?
What is a pandemic?

But it does not apply to the majority of workers in the U.S. Companies with 500 or more workers — which employ over half of all workers — do not have to meet the requirements. And companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions from the White House. Gig economy workers also aren't guaranteed relief. 

Some companies are implementing leave policies on their own accord.

Food assistance

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act also addresses some food insecurity issues. Here are a few ways it is helping:

  • Provides $500 million in food assistance for low-income mothers with young children and pregnant women
  • Puts $400 million into food banks and $250 million into a senior nutrition program
  • Suspends work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the duration of the crisis

Unemployment benefits

The U.S. Department of Labor announced last week that states can provide unemployment benefits in situations of temporary unemployment related to the coronavirus. People who are quarantined and can't go to work can also receive benefits, as can those who leave a job to care for infected family members.

Travelers see long wait times at US airports amid coronavirus travel ban
Travelers see long wait times at US airports amid coronavirus travel ban

But whether you will qualify will still vary by state. To find out, you can search your state government's website for details on how to qualify or call your state's Department of Labor.

And because Trump declared a national emergency last week, those who lose work because of the virus may also qualify for Disaster Unemployment Assistance

Student loans

Trump announced Friday that the federal government is automatically waiving interest on federal student loans for the foreseeable future. The Department of Education clarified to the New York Times that this does not mean that payments will be reduced, but rather that the entire payment will go toward a borrower's principal balance.

That will provide little relief to many borrowers now, unless their income falls dramatically, the Times reports. If borrowers need to put their loans into forbearance, or their loans are currently in forbearance, interest will not accrue. 

There are still many unknowns about this policy; CNBC Make It will update this story as more information becomes available.

If you are struggling with your finances, here are some steps to take now.

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

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