Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said that the $2 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, signed by President Donald Trump into law on Friday, “will hopefully help entertainment industry workers get through some of the hardships to come.”
“I think we were very fortunate to get this language in the bill that does cover most of the entertainment industry workers who are freelancers, or who go from contract to contract, or just had a contract but it was canceled, or was about to start a show but the show was canceled or at least their continued work on it was postponed,” he told Deadline.
The legislation expands the scope of unemployment benefits beyond those who have had traditional employer-employee relationships. Now freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors will be eligible for emergency coronavirus employment benefits for up to four months. The benefits also will be retroactive to Jan. 27, and the legislation increases the size of the unemployment checks by $600 per week.
Schiff, whose district covers Hollywood, Burbank and other areas heavy in the industry workforce, led a group of dozens of lawmakers who called for the relief package to include non-traditional employees. Unions and guilds also were concerned over freelance workers who had upcoming projects canceled.
Now the next step: Applying for benefits. Schiff said that those who want to get benefits will have to self-certify their eligibility, but it is not entirely clear yet what that process will entail. Schiff is urging those seeking benefits to apply to the state Employment Development Department — edd.ca.gov/unemployment — which itself could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of those seeking help.
“This is a caseload that I don’t think anyone ever contemplated, but I certainly hope” that the website has the capacity, Schiff said.
Schiff was in Washington on Friday and was present for the voice vote on the relief package. Many members were not and were back in their home districts. Schiff, though, said that he has remained in D.C. because he had been in self-quarantine after one of his former staff members came down with the virus.
Now that the bill, one of the largest Congress has ever passed, is law, there are some lingering questions of implementation.
The bill includes $350 billion for small businesses (defined as 500 employees or less) to stave off layoffs and continue to pay their employees. It provides eight weeks of federally guaranteed loans under a “paycheck protection program” to cover payroll and other costs for two months, with the loans turning into grants if the payroll is maintained.
So what happens if a business has already laid of their workers? An estimated 3.3 million workers filed jobless claims just in the past week.
Schiff said that he consulted with the chair of the House Small Business Committee, who said that a small business could rehire employees and still qualify for the loans-to-grants through the Small Business Administration.
The legislation also has another $500 billion is directed to government-backed loans for larger businesses in distressed industries. That could prove important to such industry sectors as movie theaters and theme parks, but it is not entirely clear which businesses would be eligible.
Democrats complained that the GOP version of the relief bill essentially made the $500 billion a Treasury Department “corporate slush fund,” but came to support the final legislation after additional levels of oversight were added, including an inspector general and five-person committee.
“But there’s still a great deal of discretion in terms of which industries are deemed to be critical and which would take the assistance,” Schiff said. He said that there was a worker retention and wage and benefit requirement to qualify for the loans.
The relief legislation also includes outlays to boost support for arts organizations, with $75 million each going to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Another $75 million, to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, would assist public television stations.
Yet even before Congress voted on the legislation, some of the line items became targets by media figures such as Sean Hannity and a number of Republican lawmakers as unnecessary emergency spending. They zeroed in on a $25-million directed to the Kennedy Center, which has been forced to cancel all performances and close due to the coronavirus crisis.
“I don’t know what to make of the Republican criticism except as a deflection,” Schiff said. “They wanted this to be a corporate bailout. And they are most distressed that we provided unemployment compensation benefits to people. They wanted to try to restrict those or reduce the amounts of unemployment, and that’s the principal objection. So, they always tend to pick shiny objects to distract people’s attention.”