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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 all jobless renters some relief, Sonoma County has put a moratorium on home evictions during the ongoing pandemic, though tenants eventually could be on the hook for months of unpaid back rent.

Some local business owners, meanwhile, say the $600-a-week federal unemployment payments may have caused a disincentive for employees to return to work when called back. According to a study by the University of Chicago, as many as two-thirds of laid-off workers are eligible for more money through unemployment insurance than they could earn on the job.

“Once you’re on the so-called dole how hard is it to get people back to work?” said Eyler, the SSU economics professor. “That could further interfere with the labor market.”

That’s the argument some Republican lawmakers and officials have made against extending the weekly federal bonus payments. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has for weeks indicated he has no intention of working on an extension with Democrats, who largely want to see the benefits continue. However, McConnell and the Trump administration reportedly have begun to signal they are open to a compromise.

In interviews, North Bay U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, both Democrats, said they are confident Congress soon will come to a deal on extending the unemployment payments, though possibly for less than the $600 a week. Both voted for a $3 trillion stimulus bill that passed the House in May that would continue payments in full through the end of the year.

“There is growing recognition that if you let these benefits expire at the end of the month (July) you could plunge the economy deeper into crisis,” Huffman said. “My concern is that we may have a period of lapse (in payments) because we don’t have that many (congressional) work days between now and the end of the month.”

Thompson said lawmakers increasingly will be under pressure to approve an extension of federal jobless benefits, as state and local governments across the country continue to temporarily close business sectors in an attempt to get a grip on the virus. At the same time, he acknowledged the emergency assistance may be slowing hiring for some businesses, even though employees are not supposed to be able to continue collecting payments if they’re asked to return to regular work hours.

“I know they’re not making this stuff up,” Thompson said of local business owners. “I have spoken with people who have had trouble hiring people back to work. ... What we need to do is focus on making sure we have a safe work environment to return to.”

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co., said some of her employees at the company’s taprooms in Windsor and Santa Rosa asked to stay furloughed once the pubs fully reopened, though she added that could have been because they weren’t comfortable returning to the job with the virus threat still great. Others were eager to get back to work.

“There were plenty of people who were making more on unemployment who were jumping at the chance to have an actual job,” she said.

Cilurzo had advised employees that did return to work to keep their unemployment claims open. That way, they wouldn’t need to go through the potentially burdensome process of reapplying for jobless benefits in the event of a closure like the one this week. Monday’s halt of indoor dining resulted in the company shutting its Windsor pub for all but takeout, prompting the brewery to furlough a yet-to-be-determined number of staff.

Jamie, 42, who asked not to use her last name for fear of reprisal from one of her employers, lost her jobs as a part-time bartender and substitute teacher early in the pandemic. Her federal unemployment payments have been crucial to helping her cover rent, pay bills and support her three children who still live with her in Santa Rosa.

“Without that, I guess I’d be on welfare,” she said. ”I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

Jamie worries she won’t be able to return to teaching in-person classes in August, a few weeks after her bonus unemployment pay is set to expire. “As long as there’s not a large gap there, I think that I’ll be OK,” she said.

Hairston-Loveridge, the photographer, said she could be forced to support her family on just $167 a week in emergency aid once the federal jobless bonus expires. In preparation of her possibly losing most of her financial assistance, a friend recently set up a Gofundme page to help Hairston-Loveridge pay for rent and groceries, and has so far raised over $5,000.

Still, she fears that financial help won’t be enough if Congress fails to act and the pandemic drags on for many more months.

“I see it coming and that’s the hard part,” Hairston-Loveridge said. “I know what I’m looking at in losing these benefits. If I can see it, I know I’m not the only one.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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