A Status Update on Pennsylvania’s Policy Response to COVID-19: Economic Relief, Health Care and Worker Protections

Diana Polson |

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the inequities and inadequacies that exist in our Commonwealth, from the precarity of our economic system, the holes in our social safety net, the inadequacy of our private health care system and the undervaluing of our workforce, even those workers who provide essential services to the people of Pennsylvania.

We at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center have been compiling a list of policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that we would like to see on the state level. In the areas of economic relief, worker protections, and health care, Pennsylvania has made some progress—but it also has a long way to go to ensure all Pennsylvania residents are supported during this difficult time.

Here are some of the advancements Pennsylvania has made in the area of economic relief (highlighted in darker blue in the attached spreadsheet).

  • On March 18, the State Supreme Court ruled that no landlord or bank can evict a tenant because of failure to pay rent or mortgage payments. At present, this extends to April 30.
  • The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission issued an emergency order on March 31 that establishes a moratorium on public utility service terminations.
  • In-person requirements have been suspended when applying for assistance at county assistance offices (CAOs).
  • LIHEAP closed April 10 but will reopen for crisis assistance, likely in May. This will be funded, in part, by the federal CARES Act stimulus money.
  • Emergency SNAP assistance will be expedited and issued within five days of application.

Strengthening and expanding the Unemployment Insurance system in Pennsylvania is of particular concern, especially given the state-mandated closing of non-essential businesses in order to keep people safe. Pennsylvania has seen a huge increase in UI claims submitted to the state and staff members are working to adequately respond by processing claims and setting up a system to implement the newly passed federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers a broader range of workers. Expansion and strengthening of the UI system are happening on both the federal and the state level.

Changes include:

  • The usual week-long delay before workers can receive their first unemployment insurance payment has been waived.
  • The usual work-search requirement to receive UI has been waived.
  • Unemployment hearings can now be done by telephone.
  • Gig workers and the self-employed can now access Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (a federal change that PA will be implementing).
  • Employers will not be penalized with higher UI tax rates because of pandemic-related layoffs.

In terms of health care (highlighted in darker yellow), Pennsylvania has done the following:

  • The state has placed a moratorium on public health coverage loss if beneficiaries return renewal forms but do not do interviews.
  • Governor Wolf signed an executive order that requires all health care providers, manufacturers, and suppliers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and pharmaceuticals in PA to report their current PPE inventory and be prepared to submit them to the state in case of higher needs in a different part of the state.

In the area of worker protections (orange on spreadsheet), Pennsylvania has already required businesses with at least 50,000 square feet used for commercial, industrial or other enterprises that are still operating to clean high-touch surfaces in a way that complies with CDC standards. This order, signed by the PA secretary of health Dr. Rachel Levine, also requires that facilities have a “sufficient number of security employees to control access, maintain order, and enforce social distancing of at least 6 feet.”

Another order by Dr. Levine on April 15 focused on the protection of workers in life-sustaining businesses. This order requires employers to provide masks for employees, stagger work start and stop times, provide sufficient space for breaks and meals, conduct virtual training sessions where possible, maintain 6 feet apart rules, and provide information in other languages for non-English speakers. The order also requires customers to wear a mask and it lays out a process for employers to follow if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

While these changes are positive steps, there is still a long way to go. There are currently several pieces of legislation that have been or will soon be introduced to address hardships occurring as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. Please refer to the attached spreadsheet to see additional policies we’d like to see in the Commonwealth.

Senator Judith L. Schwank and Senator Lindsey Williams are introducing legislation to support childcare centers, pre-K centers, and Head Start programs that are hard hit during the statewide stay-at-home order and requirements for non-essential businesses to close. (Representatives Innamorato and Miller will introduce legislation on the House side.) The Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA campaigns have reported that Pennsylvania could see permanent closures of nearly one-third of childcare centers as a result of the current shutdown. Support for these programs during the pandemic will ensure childcare centers can reopen, employees are getting paid, and families will have childcare once they return to work. The proposed legislation would: 1) provide funding to childcare centers to cover administrative costs, including payroll, making up for the loss of tuition payments ($100 million); 2) provide funding for pre-K and Head Start to cover administrative costs, including payroll ($17 million); 3) extend pre-K and Head Start programs into the summer to address the loss of early childhood learning for students ($50 million).

Representatives Elizabeth Fiedler, Sara Innamorato, Danielle Friel Otten, and Summer Lee will be introducing legislation to freeze rent and mortgage payments.

Senator Steven Santarsiero is sponsoring legislation aimed at protecting workers during the public health emergency. The state and federal governments have the power to isolate and quarantine individuals when needed. However, Pennsylvania law, as it stands now, does not address the question of whether an employer can fire a worker who is under quarantine or in isolation. While Pennsylvania is taking the necessary steps to ensure the virus doesn’t continue to spread, employees need protection from repercussions as they do what is needed to keep themselves and others safe. This legislation would make sure workers could not be fired as a result of quarantine or isolation during a public health emergency.

Senator Pam Lovino is introducing legislation that would provide all school contractors the same protections that were given to school bus transportation services during the amendments to the Public School Code amended to include a section on the Pandemic of 2020. This amendment left out thousands of workers across Pennsylvania who provide critical services to school districts even though these services were budgeted for. This legislation would amend the Public School Code to allow school entities to negotiate a contract service provision during the time that schools are closed just as the school bus transportation services are allowed to do.

Senator Larry Farnese and Representative Joe Hohenstein are introducing legislation for an emergency expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act. There have been advancements on the federal level through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act but it leaves several holes in access to paid sick leave and family medical leave. Senator Farnese’s legislation seeks to fill those holes. His legislation would: 1) provide emergency paid leave for all employees not covered by the federal bill; 2) extend paid seek leave for an additional 4 days to ensure workers can be covered for the full fourteen days needed for quarantine; 3) extend paid leave for individuals who have been laid off or who have had their workplaces closed; 4) for those who must take leave due to school closures (to care for their child), the state will cover an additional 1/3 pay so workers can get their full pay; 5) extend federal medical leave to all employees at 100% of their wage rate starting immediately after leave and the additional 1/3 to fill the gap for 100% pay through the term covered by the Family Medical Leave Act; 6) and finally, a requirement to instate workers returning from leave.

Representative Steve Malagari will introduce legislation aimed at protecting the state’s food supply workers. This bill will relate to “social distancing within the workplace, paid leave, attendance policies and protocols for protecting and notifying employees should a coworker become ill.”

Representative Frank Dermody has a resolution (HR843) to address the problem of SNAP recipients not currently able to use SNAP for online grocery purchases. This resolution would urge our Department of Human Services to submit an application to join an online purchasing pilot happening in several other states. Participating in this pilot would allow SNAP participants to purchase groceries online.

Representative Austin Davis has a bill (HB2411) that would do three things to support front-line health care workers: 1) invest in PPE to help protect front-line health care workers and their patient; 2) establish mental health supports for front-line health care workers; 3) and create a child care grant program for frontline health care workers to ensure they are able to afford high-quality child care while they work during this crisis.

Representative Jeanne McNeill plans to introduce legislation that protects Pennsylvanians from having their internet and cable services terminated during a declared disaster emergency.

Representatives MaryLouise Isaacson and Summer Lee have introduced HB2404. This would protect tenants from eviction during a state of emergency, that is those who are unemployed, separated from their employment or unable to find employment. Landlords who violate this would face penalties.

Representative Morgan Cephas has HB2403 and HB2402 which would waive interest for student loans through the PA Higher Ed Assistance Agency and loans issued by the PA Housing Finance Agency.

Finally, Senators Maria Collett and Lindsey Williams are proposing legislation called the American Working Families Relief Action Plan – Front-line Worker Protections. During this global pandemic, front-line workers are continuing to operate under dangerous working conditions and face heightened risk to their health. This legislation seeks to protect these workers who are operating in life-sustaining jobs during this crisis. It would: 1) provide emergency funding for safety equipment, including personal protective equipment like N95 masks and mental health supports for healthcare workers and other essential public sector workers; 2) create clear standards for containment control plans in healthcare facilities, which would include emergency standards and accountability; 3) prioritize front-line workers in COVID-19 testing; 4) suspend or limit in-person services to the greatest extent possible by shifting to virtual assistance working standards for essential public workers; 5) and require cleaning standards for workplaces that continue to be open during the crisis. These standards should meet or exceed state and federal standards for COVID-19 prevention.

For more details on our policy agenda, what has been achieved and what is in process, see our detailed spreadsheet. We will be updating this document as things develop over the next few weeks.