By TAMI LUHBY and KATIE LOBOSCO
Millions of Americans will start running out of pandemic unemployment benefits in just two weeks, putting increased pressure on the Senate to quickly pass its version of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
The jobless payments are among the first federal lifelines from December’s $900 billion stimulus package set to expire, with additional provisions for expanded paid sick and family leave, small businesses, food stamps, housing protections and other relief lapsing in the following weeks and months.
The Senate is set this week to begin considering the massive package that passed the House early Saturday morning, largely along party lines. But it will take some time to pass since senators are expected to make changes to the legislation – and then the House will have to vote on the revised bill before it is sent to Biden for his signature.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
Temporary unemployment benefits run out first
Out-of-work Americans will get their last $300 federal weekly boost to jobless payments in two weeks. And those in two key pandemic unemployment assistance will start running out of benefits at that time.
Some 4 million people in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs will see their benefits expire in mid-March, while the payments of another 7.3 million folks will lapse over the following four weeks, according to a recent report from The Century Foundation.
The two temporary federal programs were created in Congress’ $2 trillion relief package last March and were extended by 11 weeks in the $900 billion relief deal passed in December. The former provides benefits to freelancers, gig workers, independent contractors and certain people affected by the pandemic, while the latter lengthens the duration of payments for those in the traditional state unemployment system.
The House bill calls for extending these pandemic unemployment programs – as well as providing a $400 federal weekly enhancement to payments – through Aug. 29. The President’s plan called for continuing benefits through the end of September.
However, even if Biden signs the bill in mid-March, the jobless may experience a temporary disruption in payments. The U.S. Department of Labor must issue guidance on the new law, and many states need some time to reprogram their antiquated systems with the new provisions.
Delays in passing and signing the December relief bill left the unemployed waiting for $17.6 billion in benefits in January, according to another analysis by The Century Foundation.
The payments were eventually sent out retroactively, but some of those who still qualify for the pandemic programs have yet to be reenrolled. In California, for instance, it may take until March 7 for everyone to be able to certify their eligibility for the federal benefits.
What else is expiring
Unemployment benefits are not the only assistance that’s lapsing in coming weeks and months.
A tax incentive for employers that offer expanded paid sick and family leave will expire on March 31 if the bill doesn’t pass by then. Last year, Congress guaranteed many workers two weeks’ pay if they contracted COVID-19 or were quarantining. It also provided an additional 10 weeks of paid family leave to those who were staying home with children whose schools were closed. Those benefits expired in December – but employers can still receive a tax credit if they voluntarily provided the expanded paid leave through March.
Food stamp recipients are receiving an additional 15% in benefits through June, thanks to the relief bill that passed at the end of last year. The latest package would extend it through September.
What’s not being extended
Even if the bill passes, it won’t extend two other benefits set to expire on March 31: A key relief program for small businesses and the federal eviction moratorium.
The Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable loans to struggling small businesses is set to close on March 31. The bill would not extend the end date, but would add $7 billion to the program if it’s passed before the end of the month. It would also provide $15 billion to the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration as well as $25 billion for a new grant program specifically for bars and restaurants.
The federal eviction moratorium that protects struggling renters will expire on March 31, but an extension isn’t allowable in the reconciliation bill. Instead, the extension must be made through an executive action. The Biden administration previously extended the protection from Jan. 31 to March 31 – though the constitutionality of the moratorium is being challenged in court.
But the bill would send roughly $19.1 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance and utility bills. About $10 billion would be authorized to help struggling homeowners pay their mortgages, utilities and property taxes. It would provide another $5 billion to help states and localities assist those at risk of experiencing homelessness.