Thousands of Sonoma County residents could lose weekly unemployment bonus pay at the end of July
Rachael Hairston-Loveridge knows what it’s like to face a desperate situation. A U.S. Navy veteran who served in Iraq, she fell into homelessness a year after her son, Kayden, was born in 2011.
Hairston-Loveridge, 38, stayed with friends for nine months before finding a permanent home through a federal housing program. It wasn’t long before she built a successful business as a wedding and event photographer. And she’s living with Kayden and her daughter, Helen, in an apartment in Sonoma.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March it put an end to most events and gatherings. Her income cratered, and a familiar sense of worry set in. A saving grace has been the jobless benefits she began receiving in April, in particular the $600-a-week emergency bonus approved by Congress as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, a national emergency financial lifeline.
With that federal payment set to expire at the end of July, Hairston-Loveridge, along with thousands of other out-of-work Sonoma County residents, are at risk of losing vital financial payments as public health officials again temporarily close or limit certain local businesses to curb the spread of the virus. More workers will be furloughed as unemployment remains at historic highs locally and across the country.
“(The emergency assistance) has kept us alive,” Hairston-Loveridge said. “It’s hard to think that everything’s closing now. We’re looking at a very grim future.”
The county jobless rate for May was 12.7%, compared to just 2.4% for the same month last year, according to the most recent available unemployment data. In March, April and May, county residents filed over 66,000 claims for full or partial jobless benefits, according to state figures, a more than 915% spike from the previous three months before the start of the pandemic. The area unemployment report for June will be released Friday.
Some residents returned to their jobs following the reopening of local businesses in May and June. But many could find themselves back on unemployment rolls since Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday ordered the shutdown of bars and indoor dining statewide, as well as the closure of houses of worship, gyms, hair salons and other indoor businesses in Sonoma County, and other counties under state monitoring because they are struggling to contain the coronavirus.
In California, those who have lost jobs can receive up to $450 a week in state unemployment insurance payouts, or emergency federal assistance starting at $167 a week for those who don’t qualify for state aid or have used up their jobless benefits. That’s on top of the soon-to-expire $600 weekly federal bonus for all workers approved to receive unemployment pay.
Backlogged claims at overwhelmed state unemployment offices, however, have kept potentially millions from receiving those payments. In addition, immigrants without legal authorization to work in the U.S. are not eligible for assistance.
Still, economists and researchers generally agree the unprecedented expansion of unemployment pay has prevented many of the more than 40 million U.S. workers who have applied for benefits from falling into poverty.
Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University, said if Congress declines to extend the federal bonus payments in some form, it could push many local service and hospitality workers affected by the shutdowns to leave Sonoma County. And the hospitality sector represents a big slice of the county labor market.
“The shock could be that you see people leaving the area for places that are less costly and are opening up more quickly,” Eyler said.
That shock could be especially severe for workers of color, who are more likely to be receiving jobless benefits than white workers, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Locally, the Latino community appears to have been especially hard hit by job losses, with 66% of Spanish-speaking households losing income during the pandemic, compared to 35% of English-speaking households, according to an April survey by the nonprofit First 5 Sonoma.
Mara Ventura, executive director of the advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice, said immigrants and Latinos — Latina women in particular — are more likely to be day laborers, housekeepers and in-home care workers without full-time jobs to return to when new restrictions are lifted.
“Receiving less in unemployment while rents and the cost of living are still among the highest in the country here in the North Bay could devastate Latino and immigrant families,” Ventura said.
To provide jobless renters some relief, Sonoma County has put a moratorium on most home evictions during the ongoing pandemic, though tenants eventually could be on the hook for months of unpaid back rent.