At the start of this year, Katie Sorice’s life was looking up. After some financial difficulties last year, including a period of homelessness, she had a well-paying job she enjoyed, was stashing some money away and always paying rent. Then, as the pandemic’s effects became clear, her office job was eliminated March 31.
The 38-year-old was kept afloat for a time by an unemployment payment from the federal government, which sent her $600 per week on top of the $96 per week she was receiving through unemployment insurance. But since that federal payment ended July 31, Sorice has been left to pay her bills and eat on $96 per week, an impossibility in the Denver area.
“I can’t afford rent, that’s the biggest thing right now,” she said from her apartment in Edgewater.
Sorice’s story is not uncommon. Colorado, like the country, is hurting. Landlords are not being paid, businesses are shutting their doors for good, children are missing meals, unemployment remains high, municipal budgets have been decimated, and coronavirus testing needs remain unmet in some areas.
This is the predicament Congress returns to Tuesday. Crushed under the weight of economic shutdowns, many Coloradans expect the federal government to ease the financial burdens this pandemic has caused. For the past several months, their weary eyes have seen nothing but congressional stalemates and inaction.
“If we’re not keeping people in their homes, if we’re not keeping people from going bankrupt, then our health crisis is going to continue to spin out of control and we’re going to look at a decade-plus-long recovery,” said Rep. Jason Crow, an Aurora Democrat. “People are losing their homes; they’re losing their life savings. That’s a long-term economic hit.”
Seven of the state’s nine members of Congress will be judged by voters Nov. 3 — in just eight weeks. Among nearly everyone in Congress or running for Congress nationwide, there is a consensus that something further must be done. There’s a consensus that, unlike in economic downturns of decades past, the federal government owes the gig workers and restaurateurs and hoteliers and manufacturers of Colorado.
“The government, by shutting them down, essentially took away their dreams and their livelihood,” said Steve House, Crow’s Republican opponent in the 6th Congressional District, “and I think the government and all citizens who pay into it have to be respectful of that.”
Sorice receives $96 per week in unemployment payments. If she qualified for $4 more per week in state unemployment, she would get an additional $300 weekly in federal money. That’s due to the wording of an executive order President Donald Trump signed Aug. 8 in the face of a congressional stalemate over a stimulus package.
The order created what’s known as the Lost Wages Assistance program. Any unemployed person receiving $100 or more per week will also receive $300 in federal assistance. But people receiving less than $100, such as Sorice and an estimated 850,000 other Americans, do not receive the $300 federal boost.
As part of a $3 trillion bill, the Democrat-controlled U.S. House voted in May to extend the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment benefit, but a majority in the Republican-controlled Senate, along with Trump, are opposed to doing so. They worry workers were receiving more money unemployed than employed, removing their incentive to find a job. They would prefer to extend the enhancement at a level lower than $600 or cap it.
“You can’t put so much incentive out there that people remain unemployed,” House said. “The $600 thing was really important, I think, at the beginning, but it got to a point where I talked to a lot of businesses that can’t get people to come back.”
Democrats say such concerns are overblown or pale in comparison to the crippling financial burdens unemployed people are facing in this unprecedented situation. Several Colorado Democrats say an extension of the $600-per-week enhancement must be the top priority when Congress comes back Tuesday.
“The legislation that Congress adopts ultimately must meet the moment. It ought to address the scale and gravity of the crisis,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, a progressive Democrat from Lafayette who has pushed the Senate to either pass the $3 trillion House bill, known as the HEROES Act, or craft its own large-scale legislation.
Since mid-March, 542,619 unemployment claims have been filed in Colorado, according to state labor data released Thursday, and $4.8 billion in benefits has been distributed. During the last week in August, 5,837 claims were filed, which is both the lowest weekly total since mid-March and higher than the average number of weekly claims during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Kim Da Silva, executive director of Community Food Share, a food bank that serves Boulder and Broomfield counties. “Unlike the Great Recession, we’re in a health and economic stress that we’ve never seen before. The scariest part for us — for food bankers, for people in the basic needs industry — is that we don’t know when we’re going to come out of this.”
Community Food Share distributed 1.2 million pounds of food in April, more than in any month during the Great Recession or other time in its 40-year history. The food bank has handed out more than 1 million pounds every month since. Donations haven’t kept up with demand, so it has bought 21 truckloads of food to distribute.
“There is an influx of individuals who never thought they would be in this situation,” Da Silva said.
“The toughest rent checks”
The HEROES Act, the massive coronavirus relief bill passed by the House in May, would send more than $1 trillion to state and local governments across the country, refilling government coffers that have been drained by declines in tax revenue since March. Conservatives have panned the idea as a bailout for poorly run cities and states at the expense of an ever-expanding national debt.
South Metro Fire Rescue, which is primarily funded by property tax revenue, is looking at a possible shortfall of $3 million to $16 million in the next few years, according to spokesperson Kristin Eckmann.
“That’s a fire district that has 85% of its money spent on personnel,” said Crow, the congressman who represents some of the fire department’s jurisdiction. “… That means they’re cutting firefighter jobs. We just cannot allow that to happen right now.”
In tourist-friendly ski communities and resort towns, it is sales tax revenue that has plummeted. Scott Robson is the town manager in Vail, which derives 40% of its annual revenue from sales taxes. He expects his town coffers will lose about $19 million in revenue this year, forcing deferrals of capital projects, millions of dollars in cuts to operating expenses, and a handful of layoffs for seasonal staff.
“What we’ve heard from our business community here is that the next few months are going to be some of the toughest rent checks that they write in their professional careers,” Robson said.
Support for small businesses is a rare area of agreement in a divided Congress. The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to businesses that keep employees on the payroll, is popular among both parties in the Capitol and there is almost universal agreement it should be extended this fall.
“It’s hard to predict”
Congress is scheduled to be in session for only a few weeks between now and the election, the legislative equivalent of cramming before final exams. In Colorado, this will weigh most heavily on Sen. Cory Gardner, the vulnerable Yuma Republican who is asking voters for six more years in the Senate.
“I have three priorities that must be accomplished in the next coronavirus response effort,” the senator said in a statement. “Making sure that we’re stopping the spread and flattening the curve, helping Coloradans with the immediate relief that they need to get through this crisis, and getting businesses up and running again.”
A spokeswoman for Gardner said he supports more money for states and local governments, grants to support safety initiatives at child care centers, relief for senior care providers, more personal protective equipment for seniors and their caretakers, an extension of PPP and improved testing. His campaign has previously said he supports extending enhanced unemployment payments.
In his latest TV ad, Gardner touts PPP’s role in saving a Colorado diner. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, John Hickenlooper, has used his latest ad to accuse Gardner of taking “a vacation” in August without passing relief for unemployed workers and small businesses, or expanding COVID testing.
While the Senate’s August break routinely occurs each year, Democrats are quick to note it was Gardner who said May 20 that it would be “unfathomable” for the Senate to adjourn without passing a relief bill. It did adjourn, and Hickenlooper has let him hear about it ever since.
“I would have thought that with the fall elections approaching, and with so many vulnerable Republican senators, like Cory Gardner, that (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell would have made a good-faith effort to help people,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat. “I have no idea what he is thinking.”
No Republican House members responded to a request for comment last week about their relief priorities. When DeGette, Neguse and Crow were asked directly what the odds are that a compromise is met and benefits, such as enhanced unemployment insurance, are extended, none wanted to wager a guess.
“What is lacking in Congress right now is the political will to ultimately get something done for the American people,” Neguse said. “It’s hard to predict. It’s an open question.”
Source: Read Full Article