The COVID-19 pandemic will continue impacting tree care throughout 2021. Three major areas of concern that employers should be aware of are changes to the federal paid-leave program, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and updates to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Details on PPP can be found in the Washington column on page 24 in this issue.
On December 27, 2020, former President Trump signed into law the latest COVID-19 relief package, “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021” (H.R. 133, 116th Congress). The bill included several changes to paid-leave requirements established under the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (FFCRA) (H.R. 6201, 116th Congress). Business owners will no doubt remember that FFCRA called for paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with COVID-19 and employer-provided medical leave to those caring for a family member with COVID-19.
The new relief package did not extend these FFCRA provisions. Instead, they were made voluntary, allowing employers to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits on wages paid out under the circumstances mentioned earlier. Visit IRS.gov for more information. The Biden Administration has made clear that enhanced paid leave will remain a priority, and subsequent COVID-19 relief packages may include provisions of interest to employers.
Some of the best news of 2020 came at the end of the year, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it had approved two COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines are in the initial rollout phases, and the decision as to who gets the vaccines and when is ultimately up to individual states. However, the federal government provided guidance as to who should get vaccinated first, and one priority is those deemed “essential workers.” Certain types of tree care are considered “essential services,” and therefore, those in the industry who perform such work should be eligible for the vaccine when their state reaches that phase.
Recently, TCIA sent a letter to organizations representing state and local governments echoing this point. Our goal is to ensure that our members who perform vegetation management around utility lines, safety-sensitive tree work and other types of essential tree work should receive the COVID-19 vaccine in a timely manner. Of course, we recognize there are deserving groups that should receive the vaccine first (the elderly, first responders, etc.), but TCIA is advocating that the essential workers in our industry be protected. More information on this area, including what groups in the industry TCIA considers “essential,” as well as the letter referenced above, can be found on TCIA.org, under COVID-19 Guidance.
Aiden O’Brien is TCIA’s advocacy & standards manager.