The Senate gave overwhelming approval Wednesday to a multibillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill, the second such bill in two weeks, and immediately turned its attention to a third bill that could have a $1 trillion price tag.

Both Arizona senators voted for the bill that passed 90-8 after the House agreed to weaken language that would have forced small businesses to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to workers grappling with COVID-19.

The bill, which President Donald Trump had already signed Wednesday evening, would let the Labor secretary exempt businesses with fewer than 50 workers from the paid leave requirement, in the face of a labor shortage.

That was not enough for the leader of a small-business group in Arizona, who has said the financial burden could drive small firms into bankruptcy, and noted that the law does not force the same leave requirements on big businesses.

But supporters said the bill, which also mandates free testing for the coronavirus and expands access to nutrition programs for the low-income and elderly, is sorely needed.

“It increases our emergency food programs nationally and gives us some additional flexibilities for how we distribute food at food banks – which is fantastic,” said Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Arizona Food Bank Network, which has seen a spike in demand in just the past two days.

Rodgers said Arizona food banks and emergency response teams have done “an amazing job with the resources that we have to be able to meet the need,” but this bill will help them serve students who are not fed because of school closures and workers on the edge of poverty who may be laid off.

Approval of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act came less than two weeks after passage of a first COVID-19 emergency bill, which directed $8.3 billion to fund research and support federal and state response efforts, among other elements.

But administration and congressional leaders agreed that those two bills are not enough to offset the virus’ impact on the economy and were already working on economic stimulus packages, ranging from $750 billion to $1 trillion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told senators, who were supposed to be on recess this week, they would stay in Washington until a stimulus bill is passed.

“These are not ordinary times,” McConnell said. “This is not an ordinary situation, and so it requires extraordinary measures.”

The Trump administration is floating a $1 trillion package that would include $300 billion to help small businesses, $200 billion to support “distressed sectors of the economy” – $50 billion of which would be for airlines – and $500 billion for direct $1,000 payments to taxpayers as early as next month.

Senate Democrats are pushing a $750 billion plan directed more toward unemployment and foreclosure relief programs. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it “may not be enough,” but that the “needs are immediate and strong and our package addresses them.”

Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute, said neither proposal addresses the realities workers are facing.

“We think $1,000 is not sufficient to cover the kind of pain people are going to be experiencing,” said McNicholas, who said the payments should be twice that amount. “You can’t just sort of do this once. We have to have a structure in place such that if the economy doesn’t rebound, additional relief is provided directly to households.”

One-fourth of private industry workers in the Southwest do not have paid sick leave, according to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economic report. In the face of such numbers, McNicholas said the paid leave language in the bill passed Wednesday is needed.

But she agreed with critics who note that the requirement only applies to businesses with 500 employees or fewer, leaving the biggest companies to set their own rules.

“It’s just unconscionable to me that you would exempt large employers, again who are most equipped to be able to provide those kinds of benefits to their workers,” McNicholas said.

Chad Heinrich, Arizona state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said he is still opposed to the bill, despite the recent changes, since its “mandates on small business have not been removed.”

NFIB President Brad Close said in a statement Wednesday that his members “are telling us, in droves, that the additional mandates in this bill could be a devastating blow they cannot afford to shoulder.”

“Small business owners need relief now, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress and the administration in this next phase to find a workable solution moving forward,” Close said in a statement.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, said in a statement earlier this week that the Senate’s “actions now can save lives …. We will get through this together – let’s be proactive and make this difficult time as short as possible.”

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, said in a Fox News interview before that the government needed to move fast to put money in the hands of “those who are being impacted – hourly workers, waitresses, small-business owners.”

The vote comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. rose to 7,038, with all 50 states recording a positive case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Arizona health officials had recorded 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in five counties, as of Wednesday. Businesses have been forced to close or cut back services in cities like Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, where officials have declared states of emergency.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman on Sunday ordered state schools closed through March 27, and may extend that after they reassess the situation.

Rodgers met Wednesday with St. Mary’s Food Bank in the Valley, which said traffic at its night center doubled Tuesday, from the normal 400 or 500 visitors to around 1,100 people.

“I do think that this crisis underscores the need to continually think about the most vulnerable among us and how we are responding to them,” Rodgers said. “I think the safety net has been long underfunded and framed that being able to ramp up our distributions, being able to respond to a crisis like this – takes all hands on deck.

“I think it underscores that charity alone cannot do what we can expect from a larger partnership and a larger response to a crisis like COVID-19,” she said.


Story by Jessica Myers, Cronkite News