Sun Sentinel: Unemployed are about to lose their $600 checks from the feds

That $600 unemployment check from the federal government that helped millions of people pay for rent and other critical expenses during the COVID-19 crisis will end a week before most people expected.

Although the program is authorized through July 31, final payments will end July 25, according to state and federal officials. And despite deliberations in Congress and spikes in coronavirus cases in multiple states, there’s no agreement among lawmakers to replace those dollars.

The payments were included in a $2.2 trillion stimulus and relief package that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in late March.

But they’re ending in Florida on July 25 because July 31 falls on a Friday this year. That effectively short-changes those who qualified for the cash because the state pays its jobless benefits on a weekly cycle that ends on Saturdays. Other states do the same, with some making payments based on calendar weeks that end on Sundays.

“Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) is not payable for any week of unemployment ending after Friday, July 31, 2020,” Paige Landrum, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity, said in an email. “A week of unemployment starts on a Sunday and ends on Saturday; therefore, pursuant to the Federal guidance, the last week that FPUC can be paid in Florida is the week ending Saturday, July 25, 2020.”

Florida’s standard weekly $275 payout still will be paid after the federal money stops.

As of this week, the state DEO had paid more than 1.7 million people $10.1 billion since the coronavirus started to disrupt the economy in mid-March. More than $7.35 billion of that money has come from the federal program that is about to expire.

The July 25 expiration date came as a surprise to a number of unemployed workers and legal aid lawyers who represent them.

“I get a daily update from the DEO and I don’t recall them mentioning when the benefits are ending,” said Laurie Yadoff, director of an economic advocacy project at Coast-to-Coast Legal Aid of South Florida. “I have not talked to a single client who realized they were ending until I told them.”

Robert Burdick, a Deerfield Beach technology worker who lost his job in the spring, and who is not a Legal Aid client, is one of the many unemployed Floridians still waiting for a response to his application by the state’s overwhelmed benefits system.

As an independent contractor, Burdick was told he was not entitled to the state’s payment of $275. But he could qualify for the federal payments if only the DEO would advance his application, which he filed in April.

“I’ve been doing this dance almost two months,” he said, including making an application for the federal money as instructed. “My circumstance qualifies me to receive the federal benefits. I jumped through those hoops at the end of the April.”

Burdick figures he’s owed “about four or five thousand dollars” by now. “I want my money,” he said.

Landrum, the DEO spokeswoman, said the agency intends to pay those who filed claims before the week ended July 25 “as quickly as possible.”

She said claims are “backdated to the first week during the Pandemic Assistance Period that the individual was unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of COVID-19.”

“Individuals have the option to modify the claim effective date between March 9 and April 9 if they were unable to file a claim during that time,” she said by email. “To modify their claim effective date, claimants should call the customer service Center at 1-833-FL-APPLY.”

Volunteers in Pompano Beach pack bags of food at one of the many drive-thru food giveaways that have been common sights in South Florida since the coronavirus pandemic forced the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of people around the region.
Volunteers in Pompano Beach pack bags of food at one of the many drive-thru food giveaways that have been common sights in South Florida since the coronavirus pandemic forced the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of people around the region. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Patching the safety net

The end of the $600 weekly program poses an immediate threat to the patchwork safety net that Congress, state and local government agencies stitched together for the millions who lost their jobs and who have housing and other domestic financial obligations to meet every month.

“What I am worried about is that Congress doesn’t act by the 25th,” said Michele Evermore, an analyst at the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C. “Most people don’t know they’re not going to get that enhanced benefit. People are going to be very surprised when they don’t get a benefit in the last week of July.”

Another key date looms for people who are having trouble meeting their monthly rent and mortgage payments. At 12:01 a.m. Aug. 1, a state moratorium against residential evictions expires. Gov. Ron DeSantis could renew it, as he has at the last minute twice before.

In addition to tenants who fear losing their homes, Florida apartment landlords are concerned that monthly rent payments might stop when the federal money dries up.

“The additional federal unemployment benefits and the federal stimulus have undoubtedly helped many Floridians pay their rent,” Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association based in Orlando, said in an email. “The Florida apartment industry remains concerned that the expiration of this additional assistance will have a significant and negative impact on many individuals’ ability to pay rent.”

Most Democrats in Congress would like to extend the $600 payout through January 2021, but the idea is not popular among Republicans or policy planners in the White House. Congress has only a few weeks to act before it enters a recess in August. The proposed extension is part of a $3 trillion “Heroes Act” that cleared the Democrat-controlled House.

“We voted two months ago to extend federal unemployment benefits and housing protections,” U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch told the South Florida Sun Sentinel by email Wednesday. The Democrat’s district covers parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“Now, we’re just over one week away from these benefits expiring and Senate Republicans are absent,” Deutch said. “Many Floridians have still not recovered, and it’s unclear what our state will need to do in the next few weeks to control this [COVID-19] outbreak. The Senate needs to quickly pass our bill before these benefits run out for millions of Americans.”

In the Senate, one alternative is a proposed bill from Democratic U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon that would deliver weekly payments that are pegged to states’ unemployment levels on a tiered scale. People in states with jobless rates with between 6% and 7% would get $100 a week. Payments would top out at $600 when unemployment hits 11%. Florida’s latest reported unemployment rate was 14.5% for May. The June rate will be reported Friday.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, and Florida Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, plan a joint call for the extension of federal jobless benefits, followed by a caravan of workers who intend to deliver a letter to the Miami office of Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, urging him to back the Schumer-Wyden bill.

Absent the federal unemployment benefits, “rental relief funds are the only way to effectively address housing needs during the COVID-19 crisis and help ease the burden for apartment residents who are unable to pay rent due to no fault of their own,” said Gill of the apartment association.

She said the association, which consists of owners, builders, managers and suppliers, “will continue to advocate for the establishment of rental relief funds at the local and state level.”

Reapply for extra assistance

Two other provisions of the federal relief bill passed in March are continuing through Dec. 26.

They include Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides an extra 13 weeks of state benefits to those who exhaust their initial 12 weeks of assistance.

But Floridians will need to apply for the benefits once the balance of their current claim runs out. Those who have already exhausted their benefits or have a state benefits claim that expired after July 1, 2019, will also be able to apply, according to the DEO website.

The other program — known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — provides up to 46 weeks of benefits to those who are self-employed or who would not otherwise qualify for state benefits.

View the original article here.

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