Senate leadership introduces HEALS Act, work continues toward next COVID-19 relief bill


On Monday evening July 27th, Senate Majority Leader McConnell released an initial coronavirus relief package proposal, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act. This $1 trillion proposal, which comes about two months after the House’s HEROES Act, sets the stage for discussions to continue towards a final compromise bill. 

Although there are some helpful changes proposed to Small Business Administration (SBA) programs, several key National Young Farmers Coalition priorities were left out. 

Our advocacy is critical in these early stages of negotiation. 

Here is a first take on how Young Farmers’ priorities are represented in the Senate bill:

Target direct financial assistance to young farmers and ranchers’ needs, especially farmers and ranchers of color

  • The HEALS Act includes $20 million for the USDA’s Office of the Secretary to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. However, it takes a step back from the already enacted CARES Act by not including producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools. It also doesn’t specifically address issues that diversified farmers have had in accessing CARES Act USDA funding, and doesn’t include set-asides for beginning farmers or farmers of color. 
  • On the Small Business Administration side, the HEALS Act includes $190 billion for Paycheck Protection Program Loans and new Second Draw PPP loans. It adds payments made for software, human resources, and accounting needs and personal protective equipment to the list of forgivable costs, among others. It also streamlines the forgiveness process, especially for loans under $150,000 that can be forgiven without providing additional documentation up-front. It does include proposals from a marker bill introduced by Senators Thune and Baldwin, and supported by the Coalition, that lays out a process for farms without employees to calculate their loan amount using gross rather than net income. The Second Draw provisions allow for additional loans for certain businesses that have already gotten PPP loans and can demonstrate a 50% loss in revenues, with a $25 billion set-aside for entities with 10 or fewer employees and a $10 billion set-aside for loans made by community lenders.

Connect local and regional food to nutrition assistance programs and food banks

Support farm workers by increasing worker protections and hazard pay

  • This bill does not include provisions included in a marker bill introduced by Senator Merkley and supported by the Coalition to provide paid sick leave and pandemic premium pay to farm workers and to implement CDC health and safety guidelines on farms.
  • The HEALS Act also does not include provisions included in a marker bill introduced by Senators Hirono and Harris to allow for Medicaid coverage of COVID-19 testing and treatment and access to federal pandemic relief payments regardless of immigration status. 
  • The “safe and healthy workplace tax credit” included in the bill is a refundable payroll tax credit equal to 50 percent of an employer’s employee protection expenses (e.g. PPE, cleaning supplies, and workplace reconfigurations). The qualified expenses are capped at $1,000 for the first 500 employees, and self-employed individuals can apply as a business with one employee.

 

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Require regular reports to show how emergency programs (from USDA and other agencies) are being accessed according to farm tenure, race, ethnicity, and other demographic data

  • The bill provides $7 million to the Office of the Inspector General for oversight of coronavirus response programs. However, specific demographic data is not called for to apply for USDA funding, and providing demographic information is specifically listed as optional for SBA programs. 

 

Our federal policy team has also reviewed the HEALS Act for student loan debt forgiveness language. This bill clarifies that CARES Act relief for federal student loan borrowers, which provides 0% interest accrual until September 30, 2020, also applies to students in in-school deferment.  Further, it reduces the nine current repayment options to two: a standard ten year mortgage-style payment plan, and an income-based payment plan that limits payments to 10% of discretionary income (the income amount above 150% of the federal poverty line). Thus simplifying student loan repayment, this legislation would actually penalize many borrowers and remove important protections by consolidating payments types. This bill does not include any provisions to forgive student loan debt. 

The HEALS Act still has to pass on the Senate floor, and reports indicate that there is still lots of room for negotiation in order for this bill to get the necessary votes. That means that there’s still time for the Senate to amend this bill to better support young farmers and ranchers, farmers of color and farmworker priorities.

Want to make your voice heard? Tell your Senators to prioritize young farmers in their COVID19 relief package.

 

 

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Hero image: Solid Ground Farm, NY by Tom Daly Photography

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