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Sonoma County’s unemployed hoping for help from new stimulus deal

Even news of new Congressional stimulus package may be too little, too late for those affected by layoffs during the pandemic.|

Unemployment benefits weren’t just a lifeline to Angela Ortiz. They were a path forward.

Ortiz juggled the lives of a full-time waitress and a full-time student at Santa Rosa Junior College before the coronavirus pandemic turned it all upside-down. Her restaurant cut her hours as business slowed, and Ortiz had trouble finding another job. The benefits she received through the California Employment Development Department helped pay for food, phone and car, and for books and tuition.

Then the checks shrank. Early in the pandemic, Ortiz said, she was receiving $1,600 every two weeks. Around October, that figure fell to $400. Now, her funds sucked dry, she isn’t getting anything from the EDD. Ortiz can’t stop eating or surrender the roof over her head, so her education will be the casualty.

“I will not be taking classes for the spring of 2021, and will be getting a second job,” said Ortiz, who was studying administration of justice in hopes of becoming a probation officer. “It is truly devastating that I will not continue school for at least one semester because of money.”

Millions of Americans, and thousands in Sonoma County, have been living in fear that they, too, would be forced to choose among necessities in the coming weeks as multiple federal programs were set to expire Dec. 26. Hope arrived this week. After months of bickering and fractured negotiations, Congress is inching closer to passing a $900 billion economic relief package that will fill the gap and offer extended unemployment benefits, food assistance and rental aid.

As of Friday, lawmakers were still in session, hurrying to avoid a government shutdown.

“It certainly is the thing all of us are most fixated on right now,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said from Washington. “Most of us are not in the room negotiating the final details. We’re waiting on the outside, making caucus calls, trying to gather information. But we understand the basic contours of a deal at this point. We’re just waiting to see the final legislative text, to see when we’ll be asked to vote.”

Huffman was relieved to have a deal in sight, but frustrated that it has taken so long for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a relief package for desperate Americans.

“I have done everything I could think to do to elevate and accelerate a COVID package,” Huffman said. “Going all the way back to May. This has been a long time coming. It is certainly too late for many people. And it’s too little for a lot of people. But it’s the best we’ve been able to do.”

A spokeswoman for Huffman said that more than 600 constituents have contacted his office for assistance with unemployment this year.

Even if Congress does approve a massive release of funds, because of the leviathan nature of the unemployment insurance system, hardly anyone is immediately certain of their eligibility. And the EDD, which has processed 17.7 million claims since the start of the pandemic had 683,000 backlogged claims this week.

Confusion was a common theme as people discussed their unemployment benefits with the calendar approaching Dec. 26, the end line for much of the CARES Act funding. State unemployment insurance has long been boosted by a federal fund known as Extended Benefits. The economic devastation wrought by the virus over the past nine months sparked Congress to authorize two additional federal programs, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

It’s common for people to have received some of that money without fully understanding the source, an additional bit of uncertainty for those worried their funding is about to go away.

For the record, it’s those PEUC and PUA benefits set to expire the day after Christmas. The Century Foundation, in an analysis it released Nov. 18, estimated that roughly 12 million U.S. workers would be affected by that expiration. That’s in addition to the 4.4 million who already have exhausted their CARES Act benefits. Just under 3 million total will be able to shift to extended benefits aid under the labyrinthine system, the Century Foundation projected.

All in all, the EDD paid out just under $285 million in unemployment benefits within Sonoma County from the beginning of March through the end of October, with a high of $53.6 million in May. (Those figures include the federal emergency unemployment compensation fund, too.) In September and October alone, more than 14,000 people here lost benefits when their claims maxed out. California unemployment insurance typically pays out for 26 weeks. Those approved for CARES Act money received another 13 weeks.

The unemployment rate in Sonoma County was 5.5% in November, down from a revised 6% in October. Last year in November, the county’s unemployment rate was 2.4%.

Those raw numbers hide individual stories of deprivation and urgent adjustment.

Antonio Vigil, a supervisor with the Employment and Training Division of the Sonoma County Human Services Department, talked about a recent conversation with one of his outreach counselors.

“She works with a lot of our Spanish-speaking customers. That’s a cluster of people that have a more difficult time in this economy and environment,” noted Vigil, whose office helps train the out-of-work and connect them with potential employers as part of the Job Link one-stop. “She said clients who are losing their (unemployment insurance) are stressed, anxious and worried.”

Jose Molina sounded calm in phone interview, but unemployment is definitely weighing on the Santa Rosa resident and his family.

Molina, a vineyard worker, was laid off soon after the coronavirus emergency hit. So was his wife. At first, they were receiving dual unemployment checks, plus a stimulus supplement for Jose. The sum package didn’t fully support the family of four — the Molinas have two children, aged 7 and almost 2 — but as Jose said through an interpreter, it was enough “to get a little food and stay off the streets.”

Then they lost his federal supplement. Then, about a month and a half ago, his wife’s benefits dried up entirely. They have been forced to pay rent late a couple of times along the way, and are now focusing primarily on the basic necessities. There won’t be much money left over for Christmas.

“We’re having to budget really carefully,” Molina said. “It’s a really hard decision to make as a parent. As a kid, you kind of expect a present for Christmas. But as an adult, you have to see where your priorities really lie. We’re still trying to work something out, but it’s hard not to live up to the expectations your kids have.”

Before Joe Kelner, a 29-year-old jazz drummer and music teacher, started getting CARES Act checks following a protracted struggle with the EDD, he was falling behind on car payments and relying on roommates to stock most of the food at the house they rent in Petaluma. Because most of his employment had come via gig work, California offered him a mere $51 per week. When the federal money finally kicked in, Kelner “splurged” by buying nice ingredients for homemade pizzas.

That stream disappeared in August. And now?

“We’re back to going to the food bank,” Kelner said. “I’ve tried to save as much from federal stimulus money as I could. Then you’re just watching it trickling away as expenses come in.”

These stories wouldn’t surprise the University of Chicago researchers who studied what happens to households when unemployment insurance runs out. They found that spending on food, clothes and other nondurable goods declines, on average, by 12%. Spending at drugstores falls at 15%, co-payments for medical visits 14%.

Of course, every situation is different. Some Sonoma County residents who have seen their unemployment benefits shrink are doing all right, because they had ample savings, or a spouse who has remained working, or a low-cost living arrangement.

All of those things were true, to some extent, for Sal Cracco. He had his wife, Nicole Yasinsac, rent a small apartment with relatively modest rent near downtown Santa Rosa, and she retained her winery hospitality job throughout the pandemic, which included several months of maternity leave. The couple hasn’t been living hand to mouth. Still, with a 4-month-old baby, they are hoping to buy a home, a proposition that grows more remote with every month of unemployment.

“Now that I have no income, I’m sweating a bit,” said Cracco, a veteran of the restaurant industry who had been working on a small farm in Sonoma. “We will have to eat into our savings if I don’t find something soon.”

Chris Amberger, 72, also has been subsisting on shrinking unemployment checks. His have gone from $750 to $300 to $150 per week during the pandemic. A respected bass player who has recorded with legends like Art Blakey and George Shearing, he knows Kelner from the local music scene. Amberger has saved his money diligently over the years. He misses gigging with his band more than he misses the steady income.

“We’re called the Dry Creek Trio,” he said. “And we’ve been dry for nine months. Now we call it the Dried-Up Trio.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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