The Cronyism Buried in the Latest Coronavirus Relief Bill

It requires companies to allow its workers to take paid sick leave, unless the business employs more than 500 people. What?


A much-discussed coronavirus aid package hung in limbo today as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin tried to reach a bipartisan consensus on measures that are meant to provide relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the House passed the bill on Saturday morning, Pelosi and Mnuchin returned to hammer out a series of technical corrections.

Its current iteration includes free coronavirus testing, additional funding for food security initiatives, bolstered unemployment insurance, and a temporary paid leave program. Under the latter provision, those who have coronavirus, who are acting as caretakers for one or more family members with coronavirus, who are quarantined, or whose schedules have been scrambled by widespread school closures are entitled to two weeks of full paid sick leave and three months of paid medical leave, where workers would collect no less than two-thirds of their wages. The government would reimburse the cost with new tax credits.

But there's a catch: The text currently exempts businesses with more than 500 employees from having to comply—a possible example of corporate cronyism, likely introduced by Mnuchin.

In these cases, readers might typically expect to see an exemption laid out for small businesses, who are more likely to crumble under the weight of a staff reduction. While the legislation allows the Labor Department to exempt companies with less than 50 employees if paid leave "would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern," it is not a guarantee.

So if the government's priority is curbing the pandemic, why are large companies—which employ millions of Americans and have more personnel to weather temporary absences—allowed to pass?

When Vice President Mike Pence was asked that question, he declined to answer. One potential explanation: The Trump administration is granting a favor to suffering mega-industries, for which Mnuchin has also floated giving a bailout.

Democrats are no strangers to inserting incongruous measures of their own. Just last week, an earlier version of Pelosi's coronavirus appropriations bill contained a permanent paid family leave program, including for victims of stalking. One can't be sure what that has to do with combating coronavirus.