HEROES Act fails to reach scope and scale Covid-19 crisis demands  

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act falls far short of the investments necessary to address the unprecedented unemployment levels as well as the current and future industry demand for skilled workers. The $3 trillion bill includes only $2.75 billion in workforce funding, significantly lower than the $15 billion in funding that was called for by National Skills Coalition, our partners in the Campaign to Invest in America’s Workforce, and the nearly 500 organizations who signed a letter to House leadership earlier this week.

Even taken together with very small skills-related investments in the earlier Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March, the HEROES Act fails to invest in workers or businesses at the scale or scope necessary in the face of the current crisis. 

The package includes $500 billion for states and $375 billion for cities to respond to the crisis, which had been a top priority for governors and mayors. It also extends increased support for workshare programs and federal contributions to unemployment insurance payments of up to $600 per week per worker through January 2021. Under the CARES Act, these payments are set to expire in July 2020. 

While necessary, these components of the bill are far from enough to address the needs of workers, businesses, or communities. Instead, the legislation continues Congressional undervaluing of the public workforce, postsecondary, and adult education systems in tackling unprecedented levels of unemployment and preparing workers to respond to current demands in industries like health care, manufacturing and transportation, distribution, and logistics. 

NSC sought to directly address such shortfalls by calling for a $15 billion workforce investment, which is consistent with funding levels called for by Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) along with several other House Democrats in the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act.

These workers are at the frontline of responding to the current crisis – health care professionals working around the clock to keep us healthy; grocery store clerks stocking shelves and people in transportation and logistics shipping needed supplies, electricians, mechanics, and HVAC technicians keeping our utilities running.

These men and women in skilled positions, many of which don’t require a four-year degree, have always been the backbone of our economy and this crisis makes that even more clear. But many of these industries were struggling to hire workers before the pandemic and increased demand to respond to Covid-19 only exacerbates the challenge.  

Beyond the immediate workforce shortages, we must also be prepared to invest in skills training to support our eventual economic recovery. As evidenced by the 33 million workers who have filed for unemployment since the crisis began, workers need not just basic income support, but also assistance finding new jobs and gaining skills to work in those jobs.

Our nation’s workforce, postsecondary, and adult education systems stand ready to assist in getting U.S. workers and businesses the skills they need for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s recovery, but Congress has yet to live up to its commitment and make necessary investments.  

National Skills Coalition looks forward to working with Senators to ensure any response to the HEROES Act addresses shortcomings in this initial legislation. As part of these efforts, NSC and our partners in the Campaign to Invest in America’s Workforce are collecting signatures on a letter to send up to Senate leadership and appropriators, urging necessary investments in workforce as part of any future stimulus bill.  

Sign your organization on here! 

In-depth analysis

Department of Labor

The HEROES Act would provide $1.6 billion in state formula funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title I, with $485 million for adult programs, $518 million for youth, and $597 million for dislocated workers. It includes $400 million for Dislocated Worker National Reserve grants and $25 million for the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker programs.

While overall workforce funding levels are far from enough, the bill does include critical programs necessary to respond to the current crisis, including $500 million in funding for training, support services, and career pathway connections for building a Coronavirus Containment Corps (CCC) of contact tracers and case managers. This is consistent with a proposal released by Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The CCC proposal, part of a $175 billion Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, would allocate funds to states, based on a formula that takes in to account the number of contact tracers necessary within the state, to grant to local workforce boards and, with 20 percent of the funding, community based organizations with experience working with the public health system.

The CCC proposal would fund training, support services for workers in that training and once they begin their jobs, and would require 30 percent of funding to be set aside to connect workers in contact tracing jobs with long-term employment once the need for contact tracers declines. National Skills Coalition will release an episode of our podcast, Skilled America, featuring Congressman Levin and workforce practitioners preparing workers for these contact tracing positions, on May 21st.

The bill also included $25 million for Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Susan Harwood safety training grants, which fund training and education to help workers and employers identify and prevent workplace safety and health hazards. This allocation is a significant increase over the $10 million the program as appropriated for FY2020. Past grants in this program have played an important role in supporting skill-building for frontline workers in several essential industries, including many immigrant and limited English proficient workers.

In addition to funding, the bill provides states and local areas with flexibility to spend funding through the end of 2022 and calls on the Department of Labor to release tools to help programs transition to virtual and online learning.

Department of Education

HEROES Act includes $90 billion for state Education Stabilization Funding, a second round building on funding included in CARES. Of this funding, and like CARES Act, the bill targets nearly $30 billion to postsecondary institutions, allowing funds to spent on both institutional costs and general expenditures and direct grants to support students during the crisis and for activities authorized under several statutes, including Perkins Career and Technical Education and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.  

HEROES also includes a provision that explicitly prohibits the Department of Education from imposing any restrictions on student eligibility for direct grants from higher education institutions, except for a requirement that students be enrolled at that school. This prohibition would be retroactive to the CARES Act as well. It is consistent with NSC recommendations urging the Department of Education to roll back its April 21, 2020 guidance, which limited eligibility for direct grant funds to only those students who are eligible for Title IV financial aid under the Higher Education Act. This new provision ensures that a much broader set of students are eligible for aid, including those in short-term training, those with Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status or undocumented status, working students who have been displaced from their jobs as a result of Covid-19, online students, and adult education students attending community colleges.  

The bill explicitly allows local funds to be spent to expand access to online learning and services that help both faculty teach online courses and students succeed in this kind of instruction, consistent with NSC advocacy to expand support for worker and student digital literacy skills. Given the urgent importance of digital skills in enabling individuals’ access to training, supports and employment opportunities during the current crisis, investments in digital inclusion are of the utmost importance.  These investments should include internet access – such as the initial emergency investments in broadband included in the bill – digital device access, and digital literacy skill-building. While all three elements of digital inclusion are important for all workers, they are especially important in ensuring that the pandemic does not widen existing racial equity gaps in digital literacy.  

Adult Education

On the adult education front, the HEROES Act fails to make any additional investments in WIOA Title II, also known as the Adult Education and Literacy Act (AEFLA). While AEFLA programs are one of many allowable uses for state stabilization funds, the lack of dedicated funding for adult education in the HEROES bill is a substantial oversight that does not reflect the urgency and importance of the role that many adult education providers are playing in upskilling and reskilling frontline workers as the pandemic unfolds. State unemployment data shows that workers with a high school diploma or less make up a significant proportion of workers laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic.  

The bill does provide some legislative flexibility for states’ use of existing WIOA Title II funds, allowing program administration and state leadership funds to be used to support the transition to online service delivery. It also includes a provision that — within 30 days of the bill’s passage — the Secretary of Education must provide states with strategies and virtual proctoring tools they can use to assess adult learners’ progress as part of WIOA performance accountability.  

Department of Homeland Security

The HEROES Act would take two powerful steps in recognition of the crucial role that immigrant workers are playing in the US economy during the current pandemic.  First, the bill would automatically extend the work permits of just under 1 million immigrants who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Currently, these workers have work permits that last for 1-2 years, with various expiration dates starting as soon as this month. Many are employed in key industries such as healthcare, transportation, and warehousing.

This provision is consistent with NSC’s recommendations in this area and represents a vital step as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the DACA program, potentially jeopardizing the status of hundreds of thousands of young people.

However, even if this provision were to pass, it would represent only a temporary reprieve for those workers. A permanent solution will require the Senate to take action on HR 6, the Dream and Promise Act passed by the House in 2019, or similar legislation.

A second immigration provision in the HEROES Act stakes out bold new territory in Congress. The bill would create a new temporary Deferred Action category covering millions of workers who are currently undocumented but are employed in occupations that are federally designated as Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers. This category includes dozens of occupations in industries such as energy, wastewater management, law enforcement, agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, and more.

Given the demographics of workers in those occupations, the new Deferred Action provision would likely cover a sizeable chunk of the roughly 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States. Workers would not need to file individual applications with the federal government in order to be covered by the designation and be considered legally work-authorized.

The work authorization would last until 90 days after the end of the Covid-19 public health emergency, as declared by the US Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Unlike the DACA program, which was created by administrative action through the Department of Homeland Security in 2012, this new Deferred Action program would be authorized by Congress.

Department of Agriculture

The bill would increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15% and the minimum benefit to $30 a month. HEROES waives all work requirements for SNAP benefits, consistent with NSC advocacy on the ineffective and harmful impact of work requirements.

It also prevents the Department of Agriculture from implementing a new rule that would restrict eligibility for benefits for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDS).  NSC has advocated against restrictions imposed by the new rule on states’ ability to request waivers on time limits for ABAWDS receiving SNAP benefits.  Most non-disabled, working-age SNAP recipients do work – albeit in jobs that often do not pay sufficient wages, or offer enough hours, to move off of SNAP – but for the minority of those who do not, educational attainment gaps are likely a significant barrier to careers that provide a pathway out of poverty.

A focus on rapid labor market attachment without a corresponding emphasis on upskilling opportunities for individuals subject to tighter work requirements will almost certainly lead to reductions in the number of ABAWDs eligible for SNAP, but will do little to address the skills needs of U.S. businesses or increase economic opportunities for SNAP recipients.  Especially given unprecedented unemployment levels associated with our current crisis, NSC strong supports any parameters Congress can provide to prevent the implementation of a rule that would make it harder for workers to access basic services and supports.

Additional Provisions Supporting Workers and Families  

As a result of Covid-19, millions of individuals and families have lost access to supportive services, including childcare, housing and healthcare due to childcare center closures, widespread lay-offs and other pandemic-related barriers.

The HEROES Act includes an additional $7 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants, building on $3.5 billion in supplemental funding appropriated under the CARES Act. The bill also includes $175 billion in funding aimed at helping offset the cost of rent and mortgage payments for families. In terms of health benefits, the HEROES Act provides full healthcare premium subsidies through January 2021, to allow workers who have been laid off or have had their hours reduced to maintain their employer-sponsored coverage.