As infections continue to surge in many parts of the country, prospects have improved that Congress will move another pandemic relief bill which could contain provisions benefitting federal employees, although uncertainty remains over what such a bill would contain, if one is enacted at all.
The Senate currently is in the first week of a two-week recess and could not take up any measure until after its return, but before recessing Senate Republican leaders suggested that they would use the break to assess the need for what would be the fifth major relief bill. The House is conducting committee work during that period but not floor voting.
Such a measure would be the most likely vehicle for provisions such as a special supplemental to head off the furloughs of some 13,400 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees that otherwise are set to begin August 3—and to last at least a month, likely longer. USCIS operates almost exclusively from fees from work visa, citizenship and other applications it adjudicates and those applications have dropped by about half since March.
The administration has asked for a $1.2 billion supplement, which the administration would pay for through an increase in those fees. However, there has been no firm commitment in Congress to grant that boost, and anything touching on immigration commonly gets quickly tied up in partisanship.
The House earlier passed HR-6800, the “HEROES Act,” containing numerous provisions benefitting federal employees. Those include: a “hazardous duty differential” of $13 an hour, up to $10,000 maximum for the year, plus child care subsidies for workers, including federal employees, who have remained on the job in front-line positions; a presumption that employees in such positions who contract the virus are eligible for Federal Employees Compensation Act benefits; a presumption that employees eligible for telework should remain in that status until certain standards are met; $25 billion in emergency funding for the Postal Service; and more.
Federal employee organizations, individually and through the collective Federal Workers Alliance, have been calling for such provisions for months.
The White House threatened to veto that bill over the Postal Service provision and others and over the nearly two months since House passage the Senate has not considered it; Republican leaders have said that any bill considered there would be initially written there.
They have not described potential provisions in detail, although a main focus likely will be on potential extensions of unemployment benefits and employer subsidies to keep people employed. They also have said they will insist on liability protections for employers who call employees back to work; it is unclear whether that would extend to federal agencies.
Senate Democrats also have not detailed their priorities although they did recently join in supporting the House’s proposed funding for the Postal Service.
Prior relief bills have been worked out in advance between the two parties and the two chambers, short-cutting the usual legislative process. However, the differences in the House and Senate approaches on a next bill might be significant enough to require a formal conference between the two that could be difficult and lengthy, given differences on issues including the Postal Service funding.