Comment

Extend Section 3610 of the CARES Act

U.S. Capitol Shutterstock image by W. Scott McGill 

As Congress and the administration grapple with the expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits for millions of Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth noting that another important relief provision is also expiring soon.

Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has been instrumental in protecting the paychecks of thousands of federal contractor employees and maintaining the health of the industrial base. By giving federal agencies the authority to reimburse contractors for costs associated with granting leave to employees who are temporarily unable to work due to facility closures, Congress is helping people make ends meet during this difficult time while simultaneously ensuring preservation of critical pieces of our industrial base.

Without such authority, more people would lose their jobs, more companies could fold, and the government could lose access to highly experienced and skilled members of their workforce who are critical to supporting national security, defense and other federal mission areas.

Section 3610 is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2020—most likely many months before the majority of government facilities will be back to operating at their pre-pandemic levels. While Senate Republicans have introduced funding for 3610 for the Department of Defense and NASA via the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act, they failed to include the accompanying authorization needed to allow the provision's continued use by any agency beyond fiscal year 2020.

The failure to achieve a more comprehensive deal on the larger package prior to the August recess leaves many company and contractors in uncertain territory and having to consider new scenarios for their workforce moving forward. In all likelihood, any opportunity to authorize the much needed extension to Section 3610 will not come until mid to late September given the congressional calendar and potential legislative vehicles to carry such a provision. Whether agreement is reached on a new COVID relief bill or as an anomaly on a continuing resolution to keep the government funded into the new fiscal year, it is critical that Congress extend the authorization for all agencies through 2021.

Thousands of contractors will remain unable to access their work locations and unable to telework yet are expected to be maintained in a "ready state." Without 3610 relief, the government risks losing these valued members of the industrial base to commercial companies and would then face future increased recruitment costs and a loss of experienced workers, which in turn will create mission risk. The effects of not renewing 3610 authority could be even worse for small businesses that do not have the resources to weather the ups and downs of the pandemic the way a larger contractors might.

Without an extension, continuity of government operations through the COVID-19 crisis will be threatened, as would the ability of the private sector to maintain its capability to fully support agency missions into the future.

Services companies such as mine that support federal agencies have documented how important Section 3610 has been to our workforce and operations. Many of our employees who work in the intelligence community must report to SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information facilities) that serve as workspaces built to ensure the security of classified information. The type of work performed at SCIFs cannot be performed at home. These employees are anxious to get back to work, but due to the pandemic, government and contractor personnel who work at SCIFs have been forced to work in shifts to allow for proper social distancing.

Section 3610 is a lifeline for these workers, ensuring that they are paid and kept in a "ready reserve"—even on days when they have been sidelined due to social distancing in limited SCIF space. As government agencies reopen their facilities, the virus continues to impact the workforce as individual cases of the virus close down facilities for cleaning and sanitization.

With government workers spread across the nation and disparity in the impact of the pandemic in various communities, it is critical that government agencies have the flexibility and the authorization to keep the workforce safe while ensuring continuity of vital government operations. Section 3610 provides that flexibility.

At my company, we see the human impact of COVID-19 on a weekly basis; recently four employees tested positive in Huntsville, Ala., where the company performs critical work for both Defense and civilian agencies. In addition to the importance of government continuity of operations, there is a trickle-down effect at the state government level if Section 3610 is not extended—with more workers added to unemployment rolls and a decrease in spending in support of local businesses. For cities like Huntsville, whose economy depends heavily upon government employees, diminished support from the federal government could have a devastating impact on local businesses and communities.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, it's vital that government agencies continue to have the flexibility they need to manage the contractor workforce in a responsible manner. Section 3610 is a key tool in allowing that to happen. And although the policy is set to expire in a matter of weeks, sadly, the need for it won't.

About the Author

Amy Benson, vice president of Government Affairs at SAIC, serves as vice chair of the Federal Procurement Council at CompTIA.

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