House Passes HEROES Act

By ALPA Staff

On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. This legislation is a $3 trillion stimulus, health security, and tax cut bill meant to address the continuing economic and health fallout from COVID-19, with a strong focus on items the House believes weren’t sufficiently addressed in the first major stimulus package, the CARES Act.

The HEROES Act provides substantial aid to state and local governments, money for public-health services and providers, assistance to the postal service, expands the small business paycheck protection program, and provides essential employees, including pilots, economic and health assistance.

This legislation directly responds to ALPA members’ requests on improving health and safety. The bill mandates that air carriers comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FAA standards for protective face coverings, sanitization, disinfection, and crew notification of a possible COVID-19 infection. To date, the FAA has failed to compel airlines to uniformly follow these commonsense measures, despite clear legal authority and ethical responsibility during this pandemic. The bill also requires pilots and other airline personnel access to personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks while outside the flight deck, gloves, hand sanitizer, and wipes. To allow pilots appropriate control over the use of a mask or face shield while in the cockpit, the legislation requires air carriers to submit a plan for allowing pilots to utilize a covering while at their station on the flight deck, including a safety risk assessment. These provisions ensure ALPA members are protected while on the job.

Additionally, the HEROES Act course corrects the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) abdication with regard to pandemic planning. The Government Accountability Office (GAO)—the body that audits and evaluates government programs for the Legislative Branch—has long recommended that the DOT develop an aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks, which the DOT has failed to heed. Accordingly, the HEROES Act requires the DOT to coordinate with aviation stakeholders, government, and labor unions—including pilot unions—to develop a pandemic preparedness plan, adopt the GAO’s recommendations for pandemics, and ensure the proper provisioning of PPE.

This legislation also makes important changes on the economic front. The bill extends the CARES Act’s antifurlough protections and prohibitions on governmental interference with collective bargaining agreements to either September 30 or the exhaustion of the payroll support program grant, whichever is later. By making this correction, Congress will ensure that carriers are prohibited from furloughing employees if they have extra federal grant money after September 30, and the Treasury Department isn’t able to use grants as a tool to amend a collective bargaining agreement at any time, a problem with past relief efforts for airlines.

The HEROES Act also creates a $180 billion Heroes Fund to provide essential employees, including pilots, with an additional $13 an hour in nontaxable pandemic premium pay that can be distributed retroactively to January 27 and until 60 days after the cessation of the COVID-19 emergency period.

The outlook for the HEROES Act in the Senate is less than clear. To date, the Senate has opposed moving a new health and stimulus package in the near term and doesn’t support the HEROES Act. There is discussion of a mid- to late-summer Senate-drafted bill, but considerable disagreement still remains over large-scale items, including aid to state and local governments as well as pilot-focused issues regarding mandating CDC standards and pandemic premium pay.

The Senate Commerce Committee did consider the Critical Infrastructure Employee Protection Act (S. 3728) to formalize who qualifies as an essential employee; however, the legislation didn’t mandate CDC adherence or PPE provisioning. In response, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced an amendment, which subsequently became the Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act of 2020 (S.3884), with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), that mandates health and safety standards similar to those in the HEROES Act. These competing pieces of legislation remain outstanding, and ALPA continues to monitor any developments in the Senate, as well as the overall bicameral discussions about the next relief legislation.

HEROES Act Provides Expanded Benefit Protections

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act provided ALPA with an opportunity to seek expanded benefit protections for pilots during these uncertain times for the airline industry. The legislation would provide full subsidization of COBRA and health plan premium coverage from March 1, 2020, through Jan. 31, 2021, for pilots who are furloughed or involuntarily terminated. ALPA was able to remove income thresholds from the legislation thereby expanding access to more pilots. The Association will continue to educate Congress regarding the uniqueness of the airline piloting profession and the possibility that many of ALPA’s members may experience furloughs that last beyond the end date.

In addition, ALPA secured changes to the rules governing flexible spending accounts (FSAs), which would provide pilots with more flexibility to spend down their FSA account. The legislation also includes helpful language regarding limitations on out-of-pocket costs relating to COVID-19 testing and treatment, expanded notifications by group health plans during public-health emergencies relating to early prescription fulfillment, and funding relief for single-employer defined-benefit pension plans.

The HEROES Act also gave ALPA the opportunity to advocate for and secure improvements and technical corrections to the CARES Act. Notably, language to extend the expiration of pandemic unemployment compensation under the CARES Act from Dec. 31, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021, was included. Other helpful corrections include provisions clarifying that money-purchase pension plans would qualify for the CARES Act expanded loans and special early distributions, as well as language clarifying that employers can approve the CARES Act expanded loans based on employee eligibility self-certification. The HEROES Act isn’t expected to move in the Senate but will be the basis for discussion among the House, Senate, and White House on the next pandemic relief measure. A more detailed analysis will be available once the final legislation is enacted.

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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