Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act): What Employers Need to Know

By Bello Welsh LLP

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed March 27, 2020, estimated at $2 trillion, includes billions of dollars in assistance to individuals and businesses of all sizes.  The following describes highlights of the historic legislation relevant to most U.S. employers:

  • Emergency EIDL Grants: The CARES Act adds fast access to grants of up to $10,000, in the form of a cash advance on an application for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDLs) through the Small Business Administration (a program that existed prior to the CARES Act).  Small businesses (those with 500 or fewer employees, sole proprietors, and independent contractors) are eligible to apply, and will receive funds within three days.  Importantly, so long as the application is made during the period January 31, 2020 to December 31, 2020, the advanced amount does not need to be repaid even if the applicant is not approved for the underlying EIDL.  EIDL applications are available here.
  • Paycheck Protection Program: As discussed in detail in our summary, employers of 500 or fewer employees may take out forgivable loans of up to $10 million (or a cap tied to prior average payroll costs) to cover payroll, rent and certain other costs through June 30, 2020. Such loans are eligible for forgiveness (in part or in whole), in an amount equal to the sum of costs incurred and payments made during the 8-week period beginning on the date of the origination of the loan. The amount of loan forgiveness is reduced if the employer reduces headcount or wages by certain amounts unless the reductions are restored by June 30, 2020.  PPP applications are available here.
    • This program creates an incentive for businesses to maintain or restore employment impacted by COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measures or related business downturn.
  • Expanded Unemployment Benefits: As discussed in our alert, laid off employees are eligible for an additional $600 per week on top of existing unemployment benefits, for up to four months, and unemployment benefits are extended to others not traditionally eligible, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, and those with limited work history.  States that repeal the common one-week “waiting period” (such as Massachusetts) will receive federal funding for this first week of benefits.  Additional weeks of unemployment benefits, up to a maximum of 39 weeks of benefits, will also be made available (through December 31, 2020) if state benefits run out.
    • Paradoxically, the flat dollar amount boost to unemployment may result in some lower wage earners receiving more through unemployment than through the employer, and the fact that workers will receive these additional benefits may well create an incentive for employers to shed employees from payrolls.
    • Additionally, while involuntary separations usually result in increased rates for employers, states are considering mitigating the impact of such potential rate hikes given the widespread pandemic-related job actions, and Massachusetts has already announced that at minimum, rates will not increase before January 2021.
  • Business Tax Relief Provisions (Subtitle C): While individuals will receive checks of up to $1,200, businesses will also benefit from certain forms of tax relief (listed by the Senate Finance Committee) intended to increase cash flow to help sustain business operations and payroll, including, for example:
    • Refundable payroll tax creditof 50% of quarterly wages on up to $10,000 in “qualified wages” paid per employee from March 12, 2020 to the end of the calendar year (including qualified health plan expenses properly allocable to such wages for the employee).  This is in addition to any credits against payroll taxes which are taken to fund paid sick leave and emergency FMLA leave paid to employees under the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), detailed in our separate alert.  The credit is available to firms in existence in 2020 which were fully or partially suspended due to government-ordered virus-related shutdowns or other restrictive measures, and to businesses experiencing a decrease in gross receipts of 50% or more when compared to the same quarter in 2019.  For businesses with an average of over 100 full time employees in 2019, the credit is available for employees retained but not currently working due to the crisis; for smaller firms the credit applies to all employee wages.
      • The maximum amount of the credit is $5,000, and it is “refundable” in that any amount that exceeds the employer’s employment taxes for the quarter will be paid to the employer as if it were a tax overpayment.
      • Of note, to determine employer size the IRS will use the “single employer” definition under the Internal Revenue Code.
    • Delay of estimated tax payments for corporations until October 15, 2020.
    • Delay of payment of employer payroll taxes (e.g. employer share of Social Security tax), with deferred payments payable over the following two years (first half by December 31, 2021, second half by December 31, 2022).
    • Modifications for net operating losses (NOLs) to allow businesses to carry losses from 2018, 2019, or 2020 back five years, and to temporarily remove the taxable income limitation to allow an NOL to fully offset income (including through amendment of prior year returns). These modifications are also available to pass-through businesses and sole proprietors.
    • Acceleration of the ability to recover AMT credits.
    • Temporary increase in the limit on the amount of interest expense businesses are allowed to deduct on their tax returns, from 30% to 50% of the taxable income for 2019 and 2020.

Additional emergency funds will also be made available to U.S.-based businesses in the airline industry (including passenger and cargo air carriers; Part 145 regulated businesses that perform inspection, repair, replace, or overhaul services; and ticket agents); to businesses critical to maintaining national security; and for the Federal Reserve System to make loans, loan guarantees, and other investments to provide liquidity to the financial system.  Businesses that accept these amounts will be subject to certain additional conditions, including a 1-year prohibition on stock buy-backs and dividend payouts, and temporary limitations on layoffs.

While many of the measures making the headlines are geared toward bolstering small businesses (those with 500 or fewer employees) or specific industries (airlines, healthcare, etc.), this appropriation includes a provision that targets U.S.-based mid-size businesses (between 500 and 10,000 employees).  Specifically, part of the appropriation described above requires the federal government to “endeavor to seek the implementation of a program or facility” to provide financing to banks and other lenders that make direct loans to such mid-sized businesses with interest rates capped at 2% per annum.  These loans would be subject to similar restrictions, such as requiring that funds be used to retain or restore employment at 90%, that jobs not be outsourced or offshored, and that the business not engage in stock buy-backs or dividend payouts.

Unlike the airline, national security and federal reserve lending funds, however, this potential funding would also require recipients not to abrogate existing collective bargaining agreements during the term of the loan plus 2 years, and to remain neutral in union organizing efforts during the term of the loan.  These provisions may not withstand legal scrutiny in the long run, however, as they may run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act and First Amendment rights of businesses.  In addition, given that the CARES Act only provides that the government must “endeavor to seek the implementation” of a program with these parameters, it remains to be seen when and if mid-sized businesses will be able to obtain these funds.

We will continue to monitor legal developments related to COVID-19 and provide updates as new laws and regulations applicable to employers are enacted.