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Coronavirus crisis boosts Gillibrand's calls for medical leave legislation

WASHINGTON – To hear Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand tell it, the coronavirus outbreak is a convincing argument for quick relief for the 32 million Americans whose jobs don't include sick time: federal legislation that she's pushing that would mandate paid sick leave.

"I don't know why we want our lowest paid workers to not have paid sick days since they are the ones who care for our loved ones, care for our children; the ones feeding our families at a restaurant, the ones who are working in community centers and other places where people gather," Gillibrand said Tuesday. "So I think it's urgent, and something that should be permanent."

Then again, that's just what Republicans such as Rep. Tom Reed are worried about.

"Are we passing paid leave or family leave because there's a crisis of the coronavirus, but we really don't know before this is going long-term?" Reed, a Republican from Corning, asked. "And are you using that crisis for political advantage?"

That debate between Gillibrand and Reed is likely to foreshadow the larger debate between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks, as Congress tries to figure out how to heal the economic damage being caused by a virus that's forcing many Americans to stay home and avoid traveling.

Gillibrand spelled out a key element of the proposed Democratic response to the virus during a conference call with reporters Tuesday: legislation that would permanently require most businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees, even in the case of a public health emergency that bars healthy people from going to work.

"This bill will not only address our growing public health crisis due to COVID-19, but will ensure that paid sick leave is provided to all employees in the future," Gillibrand said. "This policy is not just common sense. It's a good policy that rewards work and keeps Americans safe."

Noting that President Trump has signaled some interest in expanding paid medical leave, Gillibrand said momentum for the proposal seems to be growing.

What's more, she said the coronavirus crisis could also give a boost to legislation she's pushed for years, which would require paid leave for family members who need to take care of loved ones.

"I also think it's reason to pass the national paid leave bill as well because obviously if you do get somebody who's very sick you want to make sure that families can look after those in their family who are ill," she said.

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Hearing all of that, Reed said, in essence: Slow down.

"My hope is that leaders will take a deep breath and say look: What is the crisis we have? We have a crisis of the unknown," Reed said.

Given that Congress last week passed an $8.3 billion bill to expand the effort to fight the coronavirus nationwide,  Reed said it would be best to see how that fight plays out before deciding on an economic stimulus.

"Let's get the aid flowing, let's get the help, the resources deployed, and then let's look at an economic stimulus if this thing continues to progress over the next few weeks," Reed said.

With that thought in mind, Reed said he was skeptical not only of paid medical leave legislation, but also of a proposal floated by the Trump administration to cut the payroll tax – which funds Social Security – in hopes of stimulating the economy.

"I'm not ruling it out, but I do get sensitive to the fact that, you know, that's a Social Security tax," Reed said. "And I'm concerned: Is that the right tool?"

Gillibrand and other Democrats have questioned whether a payroll tax cut would really stimulate the economy, given that it would put money into the pockets of Americans who are being encouraged to stay at home and not travel in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus. For his part, Reed said that if a payroll tax were to be implemented, it should provide cuts for both individuals and businesses so that companies losing business because of the outbreak could get some relief, too.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, backed Gillibrand's push for paid medical leave for workers who might otherwise go to work even if they are showing symptoms of exposure to the coronavirus.

As for an economic stimulus, Higgins said the coronavirus crisis could open an opportunity for legislation he's long advocated: an infrastructure package of at least $1.2 trillion.

"Once the virus is contained or viewed by public health officials to be under a reasonable level of control, then go big on infrastructure," Higgins said.

Given that interest rates are so low, the nation could go on a highway and airport building binge and get a bargain in the process, he added.

Of course, President Trump will be a big player in hammering out any kind of economic response to the coronavirus. But so far, he's largely expressed concerns about the industries most affected by the outbreak.

"We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry," Trump said Tuesday. "We want to protect our airline industry – very important."

In the end, though, Trump – a Republican – will have to strike a deal not only with Republicans who control the Senate, but also the Democrats who control the House, Reed noted.

"In order for this to get done, you're going to have to have negotiations – and negotiations haven't even started yet," he noted.

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