By Anna Ready Blom
WASHINGTON—Congress is expected to begin negotiations this week on a robust COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus package. Senate Republicans are expected to introduce a slate of bills that will be their starting place for negotiations, while House Democrats set their marker back in May when they passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the NACS Government Relations team has been actively advocating on behalf of the convenience store industry and its members to ensure its members' businesses can continue operating and meeting the essential needs of the communities they serve. As we look to the next stimulus package, NACS is championing several key policies that will provide needed protections, aid and relief to our members and essential workers.
Liability Relief for Essential Businesses
NACS has been a leading voice for liability relief for essential businesses who have taken precautions to protect their employees and guests from the spread of the virus. These businesses face the threat of lawsuits alleging that someone contracted COVID-19 on their premises, the costs of which would be crippling to fight. For this reason, NACS organized a coalition of essential industry associations this spring to advocate for legislation that would protect businesses who have acted in good faith from legal claims related to COVID-19.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) are championing legislation in the Senate that would provide these protections for all businesses who made reasonable efforts to comply with government guidance. That legislation, however, wouldn't protect bad actors that failed to take reasonable efforts to comply and acted with gross negligence or committed intentional misconduct. The bill is expected to be introduced this week, and Leader McConnell has publicly stated that if the Senate passes a stimulus package, it will include liability relief. While issues of tort reform have historically been partisan, NACS has been working to build bipartisan support for limited and reasonable liability relief specific to the coronavirus. NACS urges retailers and suppliers to contact their members of Congress and express support for this proposal.
Tax Benefits for Essential Workers
In both the House and Senate, legislation has been introduced that would provide tax benefits to frontline workers who have been serving America throughout this crisis, including associates within the convenience store industry. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced the FRNT LINE Act (S. 1423) that would suspend federal income taxes, and in some cases, payroll taxes for wages earned by essential workers up to a certain amount.
In the House, Representatives G.T. Thompson (R-PA) and Dwight Evans (D-PA) introduced the AG CHAIN Act (H.R. 6841) which would provide a federal tax holiday and a payroll tax exemption for essential employees within the food and fuel industries. These bills would provide an immediate benefit to those workers in the convenience store industry who have continued to show up to work throughout this crisis to serve their communities and keep Americans fueled and fed and the greater economy moving. NACS is asking Congress to include tax benefits for essential frontline workers in the next stimulus package.
Tax Credit for Businesses for Supplies and Measures to Mitigate the Virus
NACS is working with other business groups to advocate for a tax credit for businesses who have invested in personal protective equipment, social distancing markers, cleaning and sanitation supplies and other responsible measures to protect both employees and consumers from the spread of the coronavirus. Senator Rob Portman introduced the (S. 4214) that would give a tax credit against payroll taxes for 50% of such operational expenses to businesses. The convenience store industry strongly supports this legislation as it has invested millions to protect employees and guests in its stores. This tax credit would offer needed relief from the increased operational expenses incurred from the virus.
Paycheck Protection Program Forgiveness for Smallest Businesses
NACS continues to advocate for more aid for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Congress is considering providing complete loan forgiveness to any businesses which obtained a PPP loan of less than $150,000. In addition, NACS has advocated for a change in U.S. Treasury policy to allow PPP recipients to deduct their expenses paid with PPP funds from their federal taxes.
SNAP Hot Foods
During these unprecedented times, NACS has asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow SNAP families to purchase hot foods using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. While SNAP participants are not normally permitted to purchase hot foods with benefits, historically the Department of Agriculture has permitted hot foods to be purchased during natural disasters, such as hurricanes. While SNAP participants aren’t facing traditional natural disaster obstacles that are making it harder for them to prepare meals at home, they are facing unprecedented obstacles because of the pandemic that make daily living exceedingly difficult. Beneficiaries need the flexibility that being allowed to purchase hot foods would provide, and legislative language allowing this was included in the House’s HEROES Act. Last week, Representatives Grace Meng (D-NY) and Anthony Espaillat (D-NY) sent a bipartisan letter to the Senate signed by 65 members of Congress requesting that the Senate include language in its stimulus package allowing hot foods purchases.
As the negotiations on the next stimulus package begin, NACS will continue telling the story of the convenience store industry and how its members have risen to the challenges of this crisis to provide fuel, food and other necessities to Americans. NACS will advocate for policies that give its members' stores and employees the relief needed so that the industry can continue serving the communities who rely on it.
Anna Ready Blom is NACS director of government relations.