WASHINGTON — By a unanimous 96-0 vote, the U.S. Senate approved a bill on March 26 designed to provide $2.2 trillion worth of aid to workers, small businesses and large corporations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the bill's myriad provisions, the financial package includes:
- A provision for direct payments to individuals of up to $1,200 per person, $2,400 per couple and $500 per child under 17;
- A $500 billion lending program for large businesses, states, municipalities and non-profit organizations, with congressional oversight over how the money is spent;
- $377 billion in funding to support small businesses, including provisions to provide zero-fee loans of up to $10 million and expedited processing of SBA economic injury disaster loans.
- An extension of unemployment benefits giving unemployed workers an extra $600 a week for four months in addition to their state benefits;
- $32 billion in loans specifically to the airline industry;
- Approximately $117 billion specifically for hospitals;
- Forgiveness of student loan payments until Sept. 30; and
- Protections against mortgage foreclosures and evictions.
The House of Representatives was expected to vote on the legislation March 27 and send it to President Trump, who has promised to sign it.
News of the Senate vote came at a time when new cases of COVID-19 infection surged worldwide, especially in Spain, Italy and the Greater New York area.
As of the morning of March 26, there were nearly 500,000 cases of the virus worldwide, with more than 22,000 fatalities. In the U.S., there were almost 70,000 reported cases and nearly 1,110 deaths.
Business came virtually to a standstill around the globe as manufacturing and retail operations, including many tire manufacturing facilities, shut down to try and quell the spread of the virus. Many of these closings were forced by shelter-in-place orders in several countries and states.
The severity of the situation in the U.S. became clear March 26, when the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 3.28 million workers had filed unemployment insurance claims in the previous week. This is nearly five times as many as the previous weekly record — 695,000 in one week in 1982.
The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) was one of many business and industry organizations that urged Congress to enact legislation to protect their members in the week before the Senate passed its relief package.
"U.S. tire manufacturers are a critical part of the American economy," USTMA President and CEO Anne Forristall Luke wrote in a March 20 letter to Congress. "Our members play an integral role in ensuring safe and reliable transportation, particularly in emergencies.
"Ensuring the health and well-being of the nearly 100,000 dedicated individuals working to manufacture tires in the U.S. is of paramount concern to our member companies," Ms. Luke wrote.
Associations advocated not only for relief for their members, but also for designation of their members as essential critical infrastructure workers.
Many of them — including chemical manufacturers and vehicle repair and maintenance personnel — achieved the latter goal March 19 when the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated those and many other industries as essential.
Such a designation, industry leaders said, was a way of protecting those businesses and making sure they stay open during the crisis.
However, the CISA list is a guideline and allows states to implement their own definitions of which businesses are essential.
More than 100 industry associations wrote the White House, the National Association of Governors and the National Conference of Mayors March 25, asking for uniform application of "consistent" status.
"States should agree to directly adopt the definition of 'critical infrastructure' as defined by the Department of Homeland Security as a floor and commit to keep these critical manufacturing facilities open across the nation," said the letter signed by the USTMA and other trade groups.
Separately, six U.S. trade associations representing the tire, auto parts and auto service sectors — including the Auto Care Association, Tire Industry Association (TIA) and the USTMA — banded together to urge state and local government leaders to designate the motor vehicle maintenance, repair and service industry as an "essential service."
In the time of shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local government leaders must devote critical resources to ensuring the safe continuing operations of the nation's transportation sector, the association executives said in a March 18 letter to the National Governors Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.
As of March 26, industry representatives were still studying the massive coronavirus relief package, but pronounced themselves gratified by the Senate's quick action.
"(We) applaud the U.S. Senate's unprecedented work to pass the largest economic relief package in U.S. history," the USTMA's Ms. Luke said.
"We are encouraged that Congress is paying attention to the specific issues that USTMA identified as critical to our employees and businesses, including prioritizing a refundable employee retention tax credit and the deferment of employer-paid payroll taxes," she said.
Roy Littlefield IV, director of government relations for TIA, said his group is gathering feedback from its members on the potential impact the coronavirus package will have on them.
"We hope the package can provide swift and much-needed relief to the tire industry, although it is unclear what benefits will be provided at this time," Mr. Littlefield said.
"Tire dealers remain open as essential businesses for especially the servicing of trucks and vehicles of emergency personnel and other essential employees' vehicles," he said.
"But, as expected in this climate, business has slowed down or come to a near halt for many of our members, given the conditions and stay-at-home orders issued in some states," he said. "We need relief for those businesses and their employees who are suffering during this time."
Earlier, 105 small business groups expressed concern over the paid-leave mandates contained in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, which President Trump signed into law March 18.
In a joint letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Republican and Democrat leaders., the groups said the mandates "presume liquidity and a tolerance for debt that simply does not exist at this time."
Among the signees are the Alabama Tire Dealers Association, Auto Care Association, Automotive Oil Change Association, Council of Automotive Repair, International Franchise Association, National Automobile Dealers Association, National Small Business Association and the National Federation of Independent Business.
TIA separately expressed concern over that bill, H.R. 6201, which mandates that employers with fewer than 500 employees provide paid leave to qualified workers affected by the coronavirus, through the Family Leave Act
The exact details of how this provision will work — including tax credits to help businesses cover the costs of paid leave — are still being worked out, and this is creating confusion for tire dealers and auto repair shops, according to TIA CEO Roy Littlefield III.
"The law clearly is aimed at helping employees impacted by the virus," Mr. Littlefield said. "But it also has tax implications for our small business owners as they strive to maintain their operations."