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About 24,700 people in Santa Barbara County are hanging on Congress’s decision whether or not to renew the $600 in stimulus money paid weekly to those thrown out of work by the COVID pandemic. That provision of the federal CARES Act expires on July 31, and the payment helped the nearly 300,000 Californians who applied for benefits just last week. Unemployment payouts from the state alone otherwise average from $40-$450 per week.
The information that’s available for Santa Barbara County about the number of people who are unemployed lags the on-the-ground experience by a month. The June numbers that just came out reflect the on-again, off-again state of reopening in California. Last week, barber shops and hair salons were ordered closed, yet this past Monday morning, the “on” button was pressed again for those in the tonsorial profession — as long as they cut hair outdoors.
In June, “Some sectors added jobs back fast, mainly leisure and hospitality and retail,” said Peter Rupert, who leads UCSB’s Economic Forecast Project. “These are the two that slammed shut first and were easiest to reopen. That happened nationally as well. Bars and restaurants are doing well as they have adapted spaces to socially distance and make customers feel safe.” But retail was likely to continue to struggle, Rupert said. “I think there will be some casualties in retail, some due to COVID, some not. This has just accelerated things.”
Dozens of constituents have contacted their legislators’ offices, mostly asking for help reaching California’s overloaded unemployment office. It’s a growth sector in itself, adding more than 8,000 workers to handle the nearly seven million claims coming to the state since the pandemic began. More than $45 billion has been paid out. But folks were concerned they would not be able to make ends meet if the $600 ran out, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s office reported.
Representative Salud Carbajal described what he’d heard: “One constituent who wrote to me described a reality many people are facing. He was laid off as a result of COVID-19, and his existing health condition puts him in the high-risk pool, so he can’t simply find a new job. The extra $600 per week has made a world of difference to individuals like him.”
The money is not insignificant for Santa Barbara County. In January, $7.1 million went to county residents from the state unemployment office; in April, the payment leapt to $28.7 million and to $39.3 million in May. Likewise, the quantity of people out of work has risen and fallen with the state’s shutdowns, cresting to 29,500 in April and dropping to 24,700 in June. About 4,000 more people found jobs in June, bringing the number of employed to 213,500, up 1.9 percent from May’s 209,600.
“We’re a little bit concerned, with the governor pulling back on reopening efforts last Monday,” said Alma Janabajab, with the county’s Workforce Development Board, of a potential increase in unemployment. “Those numbers will probably be reflected in next month’s report.” Her office directs those seeking unemployment to their website for email addresses that get a faster response than waiting on the phone on hold. They’re also posting job and training information at the Workforce social media feeds.
Janabajab said Workforce Development understands that the additional $600 gives some workers more than they earned before and that others worry about their health if they resumed working. “People are bummed they may not get the extra amount,” Janabajab related, “but for some, their employer isn’t really taking precautions, and the numbers are going up so quickly.” Health insurance and other benefits were a large reason many wanted to go back to work, she added.
As Rupert indicated, after the state shut down in March, 10,700 people in the hospitality industry lost their jobs and applied for unemployment insurance in April. Work picked up in June, with an additional 6,000 jobs in the hospitality industry. Another major sector seeing growth was farming, which added 10,700 jobs since February. A large area of job loss for June was in government — 2,000 unemployment applications filed — which Janabajab said was in part a seasonal occurrence among teachers who didn’t work during the summer.
The Workforce Development Board statistics listed Santa Maria as having the largest group of unemployed persons in June: 5,800, or 12.1 percent of the city’s workforce. Next were Santa Barbara, with 5,700 people and 11.5 percent of the workforce; Lompoc, 2,600 unemployed and 15.1 percent; and Goleta, 1,700 unemployed and 10.3 percent. All the numbers represented improvements of 1-3 percent over May.
Congressmember Salud Carbajal has been keeping a close eye on the new stimulus package negotiations in the Senate. “I’ve heard from dozens of constituents who are anxious about the federal unemployment insurance coming to an end,” Carbajal said. “COVID-19 is far from over and, especially in California, we are seeing a surge in cases that has forced businesses to close once again. Unfortunately, that will mean even more individuals who are out of work and unable to survive without the extra $600 a week that Congress passed in the CARES Act.”
The fight over keeping stimulus money for the unemployed — called Pandemic Additional Compensation payments — had both Republicans and Democrats leaning toward a renewal, but how much was the question. The word coming out of the Republican camp early this week was a reduction to either $200 or $400. Democrats have pushed for the full $600, which was part of the Heroes Act passed in May. The GOP proposal is expected to emerge sometime this week or next.
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