Justia: COVID-19 Laws and Legal Resources COVID-19

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has struck a severe blow to public health and the economy in the U.S. In response to this emergency, the federal government passed a massive stimulus package worth over $2 trillion. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains measures designed to help individuals and businesses under financial stress. For example, the federal government will supplement state unemployment benefits and expand eligibility for benefits. It also will provide free COVID-19 testing and substantial funding for the health care sector. Another notable feature of the CARES Act involves direct cash payments to each taxpayer whose income falls within a certain range. You can read more here about the details of these payments.

The CARES Act offers protection to owners of small businesses, which face a high risk of closures and layoffs. Businesses with 500 or fewer employees can receive loans to help cover the costs of their operations if they maintain payroll during the emergency. Parts of these loans will be forgiven if a business maintains payroll. Large businesses also may be eligible for loans, although these loans will not be forgiven. To ease the tax liability of business owners, the CARES Act has temporarily modified parts of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act during the emergency. Employers also can defer some of their payroll taxes for 2020 to 2021 and 2022. You can read more here about business assistance provided by the CARES Act.

Additional Protections for EmployeesComplementing the CARES Act, another federal law provides financial assistance to employees who need to take time off from work for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for employees of government agencies and private businesses with fewer than 500 employees. An employee may be eligible for paid sick leave if they have been affected by COVID-19 or if they need to care for a family member who has been affected by it. Eligibility also extends to employees with children under 18 who are staying at home because their school is closed.

Another section of the FFCRA extends benefits provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employees of government agencies and private businesses with fewer than 500 employees can receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a child whose school or day care is closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. To receive these benefits, the employee must have worked for their employer for at least 30 days. The first 10 days of FMLA leave are unpaid. You can read more here about the FFCRA and your options for taking time off from work.

Housing ProtectionsTenants and homeowners across the country who have lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic can also access certain government protections. The CARES Act prohibits landlords who rent out properties with federally backed mortgages from evicting tenants or charging late fees for failure to pay rent for a 120-day period beginning March 27, 2020. Many state and local governments have enacted more protective measures by halting evictions on a broader scale, and giving tenants protections from things like rent-related utility shut-offs. Homeowners can also benefit from the CARES Act, which suspends foreclosures on homes with federally backed mortgages for 60 days from March 18, 2020, and provides 180 days of forbearance for these loans. Many state and local governments have taken similar approaches but on a more widespread basis, and some major lenders have also agreed to automatic forbearance periods for borrowers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. More details about tenant and homeowner protections can be found here.

Shelter-in-Place OrdersMany states and counties have sought to slow the spread of the virus, or “flatten the curve,” by enacting shelter-in-place orders. These directives impose varying restrictions, but generally they require residents to stay at home except to conduct essential activities, such as getting medicine or groceries. Shelter-in-place orders also require non-essential businesses to shut down. (Read more here about the difference between essential and non-essential businesses). These directives have legal effect, which means that violations may result in penalties. Police forces in most communities have prioritized enforcement of shelter-in-place orders, so they should be taken seriously. The federal government has not yet issued a nationwide shelter-in-place order.

Price GougingWhen an emergency arises, some unscrupulous individuals and entities may exploit the anxiety of the public to make a profit. In one extreme example, a Tennessee resident collected 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer to resell at significantly marked-up prices. This type of practice is known as price gouging, and it is illegal under many state and local laws across the U.S. Price gouging generally consists of selling a vital consumer product, such as food or medical supplies, at a price that is at least a certain percentage higher than the price of that product immediately before the emergency started. The penalties for price gouging vary by jurisdiction, but often it is a misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail and a fine of thousands of dollars. Consumers who suspect price gouging should report it to law enforcement. If it occurs in an online marketplace, such as Amazon or eBay, they should report it to the site owner so that they can remove the listing.

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