For many of the nearly 100,000 Washingtonians who get emergency pandemic unemployment benefits, the uncertainty over the future of the federal program has been agonizing.
The program, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), expires the day after Christmas unless Congress acts to extend it.
But Congress and the White House remain deadlocked over PUA, which covers contractors, the self-employed, part-time workers and others who aren’t eligible for regular jobless benefits. Although Gov. Jay Inslee has promised to step in with a relief package of at least $54 million if Congress fails to act, details — including a weekly payment amount — have yet to be settled. And any state relief likely would be only temporary.
The result has been “a whole lot of uncertainty and stress,” says Andi O’Rourke, 32, a Bainbridge Island resident who has relied on PUA payments since suspending her landscaping business this spring due to the pandemic.
Without the weekly benefit, which in her case is around $600 a week, O’Rourke isn’t sure how she’ll cover rent and other expenses. “I’m going to be put in between a rock and a hard place,” O’Rourke said.
The PUA program was included in this spring’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help people who had lost income due to the pandemic but were ineligible for regular state unemployment benefits.
PUA claimants typically get a federal benefit similar to regular state unemployment benefits; in Washington, that’s around half a claimant’s regular income, up to a current maximum of $844 a week, with a minimum of $235.
Since March, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) has paid $1.31 billion in PUA benefits to approximately 300,000 PUA claimants. That’s a little over a quarter of all Washingtonians who’ve received jobless benefits during the pandemic.
For months, congressional leaders and White House officials have discussed extending PUA and other federal relief programs, which initially were intended as short-term measures for a crisis many thought would last only a few months.
Those talks took on greater urgency this fall as rising coronavirus cases and tighter public health restrictions on businesses in Washington state and elsewhere led to a surge in layoffs.
Last week, Washingtonians filed 24,587 new claims for regular unemployment benefits, the ESD reported Thursday. That was a 10.1% increase over the prior week and nearly two and a half times as many as were filed in the same week in 2019.
But talks have been stymied by disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over a range of issues, including PUA.
Some Republicans want a one-time “stimulus” payment of $600 for all taxpayers instead of a resumption of weekly unemployment payments as part of a $908 billion coronavirus stimulus proposal.
Democrats say that wouldn’t cover the needs of workers sidelined by the pandemic. “Families are not going to be able to continue to pay their rent, they’re not going to be able to put food on their table,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.
With an extension of federal relief on hold, some states have considered stopgap measures. On Tuesday, as Inslee extended tougher business restrictions for three weeks, he also promised to cover PUA recipients if Congress failed to extend the program before the Dec. 26 expiration.
“We will not allow people to fall off that cliff in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
But how the state will prevent that is still being worked out.
During Tuesday’s announcement, Inslee suggested the state relief program would pay benefits “for at least the first month” after PUA expired and that it would cover people who had been in the PUA program as of the week of Nov. 21. The package would be paid for with CARES funds Washington has already received, according to a spokesperson for the governor.
Inslee also said the weekly payments would be a flat amount, unlike PUA benefits, which vary depending on a claimant’s prior income. Payments would be handled by the ESD.
Inslee declined to say what the flat payment would be but suggested that it would be higher than most PUA recipients now received. “It’ll probably end up even a little bit more than most people are getting and a little bit less for a few,” Inslee said. “I’m not going to announce the number today because I don’t want people putting that into their budgets today — but it will be a pretty healthy amount relative to the majority of the recipients.”
According to a statement emailed Thursday from the governor’s office, “Additional details on benefit level and duration will be provided as we know more about what Congress will do in the days ahead.”
What seems clear, however, is that any state relief package would likely be only a short-term measure.
The state has allocated $54.6 million of the state’s remaining CARES funding to pay for the PUA replacement program, according to a spokesperson for the state Office of Financial Management.
That would work out to approximately $13.65 million a week over the month of the proposed relief package. In recent weeks, ESD has paid out between $30 million and $40 million in PUA benefits per week, said ESD spokesman Nick Demerice. But those weekly totals are inflated somewhat because some PUA recipients are receiving payments for multiple weeks’ benefits, Demerice said.
The state would have between $100 million and $130 million in CARES funding left after paying for the PUA replacement package and other programs, according to the Office of Financial Management.
The governor’s office declined to confirm whether the state plans to supplement the $54.6 million with additional CARES funding or with funding from other sources. “We continue to look at additional sources,” said Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk. “We’re waiting until we know what Congress is going to do before we go into details. The bottom line is we’re trying to find ways to help people in lieu of Congress doing nothing.”
Jayapal said measures such as the one Washington is considering point to the need for much more substantive federal relief.
Even if Congress agrees to extend PUA benefits, she said, the limited size of the bill being discussed means that any PUA extension would only be a stopgap, and Congress would need to enact yet another round of relief after President-elect Joseph Biden takes office Jan. 20.
“It was going to be a two-part thing no matter what,” Jayapal said. “I mean, $900 billion — it’s not even close to what we need to be able to bring the economy back, take care of families, [and] allow small businesses to survive. … It’s nowhere close.”