March 19, 2020

Harris Introduces Legislation to Expand Access to Disaster Assistance During Pandemics

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Thursday introduced the Pandemic  Disaster Assistance Act, legislation to expand the ability of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide financial assistance directly to individuals during a pandemic, including the current coronavirus outbreak. Currently, FEMA can only provide individual assistance during natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, and earthquakes.

“At a time when a global pandemic is threatening the financial stability of working families across our country, there is no reason for FEMA to treat those impacted by biological threats any differently than when a natural disaster strikes,” said Harris. “FEMA is not currently allowed to assist individuals who have been impacted by a pandemic, and that needs to change. I’m introducing this legislation to ensure the federal government can use every tool available to help the American people recover from the impact of the coronavirus.”

Specifically, at the discretion of a governor and the president, individuals impacted in any way will be eligible to apply directly to federal agencies for, among other forms of assistance:

  • Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP)
    • If already on SNAP, automatically puts individual at full SNAP benefits
    • If not already on SNAP, provides access to SNAP, with expanded eligibility
    • Benefits initially good for one month, but can be extended by the President
    • Directs USDA to provide options other than an in-person interview
  • Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA)  
    • Eligible if an individual’s job is shut down, they lose hours, or they cannot reach their place of work because of the pandemic
      • Eligibility rules are more flexible than traditional Unemployment Insurance (e.g. individual does not have to be technically unemployed)
    • State unemployment office is conduit for beneficiary
    • Good for 26 weeks, can be extended by the President
    • Creates a national floor for benefits at 1.5x the national weekly average
    • Provides waiver to requirement to exhaust state Unemployment Insurance options
  • “Other Needs Assistance” through FEMA’s Individual Assistance program
    • Includes multiple ancillary assistance, but three critical pieces for a pandemic would be:
      • Medical Assistance – assistance with medical expenses as a result of a disaster.
      • Funeral Assistance – available to families with loved ones that die from the disaster
      • Child Care Assistance – up to 8 weeks of child care expenses

Full bill text is available here. 

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