Congress to pass a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package. What it means for Alaska

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2020 file photo, sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol...
FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2020 file photo, sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Published: Dec. 21, 2020 at 7:25 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief package is set to provide some help to struggling Alaskans and Alaska small businesses.

“What’s in there is good, I think it’s all stuff that will help the economy,” said Nolan Klouda, the director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. “The big challenge is that it’s still relatively small compared to the scale of the problem itself.”

Trillions of dollars have been wiped out in economic output during the pandemic, Klouda said, but the bill provides some relief.

The 5,593-page package provides one $600 payment to most Americans that starts getting phased out for people earning above $75,000 per year. Children will also receive the $600 payment.

The package also includes an additional $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits to be paid through March. Some unemployment benefits programs that were slated to sunset next week are also set to be extended.

Cathy Muñoz, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state will need to look at the final language of the package and review the potential changes to various programs to know when the benefits will be paid out.

But, paying the benefits should theoretically be fairly straightforward as the programs already exist and don’t need to be created from scratch. “We will know more soon,” Muñoz added.

The latest unemployment figures show that 7.4% fewer Alaskans had jobs in November compared to the same time last year.

The published unemployment data is likely undercounting how many Alaskans are actually out of work, according to the state Labor Department. A better count is the number of Alaskans collecting unemployment checks.

At the end of November, just over 39,000 Alaskans were receiving one type of unemployment benefit.

“It’s too little, too late,” said Robert Adams, an unemployed cook from Homer, of the extra federal benefits.

Adams lost his job in March and says he’ll use the extra help to make missed rental payments and pay outstanding bills. “The financial hardships of trying to have Christmas this year is just too exhausting. We’re not going to be going anywhere, very little to no presents under the tree,” he added.

The federal package includes $25 billion in relief for struggling renters. It also extends a moratorium on evictions until Jan 31.

That should help some Alaskans struggling with housing payments. “It’s somewhere in the ballpark of 12% to 13% of households that are in that kind of category where they’re falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, and not secure in their housing,” Klouda said.

The United Way of Anchorage has helped around 7,200 households during the pandemic with rent and mortgage payments. Around $15 million has been distributed with roughly 80% of that money going to renters.

Clark Halvorson, the president and CEO of the United Way of Anchorage, welcomed the federal help but didn’t know yet how much funding would be coming to Alaska.

The deadline to get the current housing relief out to those in need is at the end of December, this package would extend that deadline by one year.

“By moving that back, it allows our team to have Christmas Eve off, to have Christmas off,” Halvorson said. “Our team is really grateful that we’re going to be able to take a little bit of a breath there, and know that we’re not going to be at risk of losing any funds.”

Alaska small businesses will soon be able to apply for another round of loans to stay open.

“I think this is going to be a big, huge factor in keeping people employed and keeping businesses solvent,” said Jon Bittner, the executive director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center.

Congress is set to approve $284 billion as loans for businesses with 300 or fewer employees. There is discretionary language in the bill that means that could also be increased to around $800 billion in loans, Bittner said.

He described the first round of that federal loan program as being “wildly successful” for Alaska as it provided around $1 billion for local businesses.

Alaska’s employment is highly seasonal and many Alaska businesses missed out on a crucial summer tourism season. If the package had been passed a few weeks or months from now, more business owners would have had to shut their doors permanently, Bittner said.

“By doing this at this time frame, I think we’re going to save many more than we could have,” he added

According to CNN, the federal COVID-19 package includes additional funding for school districts, child care operators and vaccine distribution. But, there is no funding for state and local governments.

In April, the state of Alaska received $1.25 billion in federal assistance. Local governments received over $562 million from the state out of that package.

There is an extension for local governments to use those funds beyond the end of the year, but Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, said that won’t make much of a difference for many communities.

“For the majority of communities, we think, the extension isn’t as helpful,” Andreassen added. “Many will already be at the full amount of spending and there won’t be any additional federal aid for them to support response efforts or economic recovery.”

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