Capitol building

Local radio, television and newspaper employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic could be due thousands of dollars in federal payouts under the latest coronavirus relief package unveiled by House Democrats on Tuesday. The bill includes a $180 million “heroes fund” that would provide for “hazard pay” of up to $10,000 for essential frontline workers. That’s equivalent to a raise of an additional $13 per hour on top of their regular wages from the start of the public health emergency until 60 days after the last day of the crisis. The government benefit would be capped at $10,000 for each essential frontline worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for each essential worker earning $200,000 or more per year.

The government would also set aside a small portion of the funding to pay for an advertising campaign to encourage large companies to make similar payments on their own without tapping into the federal pool of dollars.

The “heroes fund” payouts would be funneled through the employer rather than the government in a lump sum, and the House plan would require the company – not the employee – to file an application with the government in order to access the money. And while the earlier CARES Act left out broadcasters, the third stimulus bill explicitly calls them by name. It says those eligible for the “heroes fund” would include Americans who “work in the gathering, processing, disseminating, and delivery of news and information that serves the public interest to the public through mass media, including television, radio, and newspapers.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the program would be a boost for people working in industries where their health was put a risk and now face the potential of layoffs and furloughs. “We owe our heroes in the fight against the coronavirus an enormous debt of gratitude,” she said during a brief address on Capitol Hill. Pelosi said the payouts would also act as a stimulus for the economy.

Something For Owners Too

The bill also includes something that has been sought by large media companies, the National Association of Broadcasters and newspaper trade groups. It would make local radio, TV and newspaper companies eligible for the government’s small business loan forgiveness program. Broadcasters with up to $41.5 million in annual revenue would be eligible for the funding.

While stations and newspapers typically operate locally, the rules of the Paycheck Protection Program enacted in March excluded most local clusters because of the size of their parent corporations. The House bill would change that, specifying that any loans “for expenses associated with an individual physical location of that business concern to support the continued provision of local news, information, content, or emergency information” would be covered. It’s the same treatment hotels and restaurants received under the original CARES Act.

NAB President Gordon Smith noted that the proposal to expand Payroll Protection Program loans to local radio and television stations has bipartisan support with 124 House members backing the idea. He pointed out the idea has also taken root in the Senate.

"Hometown broadcasters and community newspapers are providing vital news and information during these unprecedented times to keep families and communities safe, while struggling with record advertising revenue losses,” Smith said in a statement. “Broadcasters look forward to working with all Members of Congress to ensure that such legislative language is swiftly enacted.”

Expanded loans to broadcasters and hazard pay for frontline workers are just two of several ideas included in the massive 1,815-page Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, which comes with a total price tag of more than $3 trillion. Yet one element not included in the House proposal is any use of federal advertising dollars as way to funnel some much-needed cash into the hands of local media outlets. That’s in part because some lawmakers think the challenge is simply getting the government to spend the money that’s already been allocated to advertising. More than 240 lawmakers signed a letter to the Trump administration last month asking it to direct federal advertising funds to local news and media outlets.

Uncertain Future

House Democrats are expected to approve the HEROES Act on Friday, possibly by a virtual vote, after which its prospects in the Senate are less certain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he thinks it’s too soon to pass a third stimulus bill since the full impact of the first two bills is not yet clear. “We have to take a pause here and take a look at what we've done,” McConnell said during a Trump campaign online event.

Yet efforts that would help local media continue. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are reportedly drafting a bill that would also make local radio, TV and newspaper companies eligible for the government’s small business loan forgiveness program.