Assemblymember Monique Limón called on legislators negotiating a new stimulus package to find a compromise as the COVID pandemic worsens. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

“Insulting” is what Senator Kamala Harris called her GOP colleagues’ view that $600 a week was too much to give “people who are out of work through no fault of their own.” The economic divide has Senate Republicans pushing to lower to $200 the federal unemployment payment meant to help sustain workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 — 24,000 in Santa Barbara County alone — while President Trump wants to add $1.75 billion to retain the FBI building kitty-corner to one of his hotels. If the headquarters moved to Washington’s suburbs, as is proposed, a rival hotel developer is reportedly eyeing the spot.

The additional unemployment benefit terminates this Friday. More than $19 billion poured into the economy weekly from the extra stimulus money paid to an estimated 32 million Americans on unemployment nationwide. Thirty-nine million of those dollars were spent in Santa Barbara County. “The benefits don’t only help the recipients; they also support local business where the money is spent,” California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein said. “The Economic Policy Institute estimates that more than five million jobs were supported by this additional income, including 800,000 jobs in California. This program has kept the economy from suffering even more harm.”

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Jobless Santa Barbarans who contacted Assemblymember Monique Limón expressed their fear and concern over the potential benefit loss: “We are hearing many stories from constituents that are struggling even with the additional $600 to meet their financial obligations,” Limón said. “They are afraid of losing their home, car, and not having access to health care. The additional dollars have become a much-needed lifeline for some families who want to go back to work but cannot for a number of reasons.” Her office has been hearing frequently from people in the last tiers of California businesses allowed to open, including hairstylists, barbers, performers and craftspeople in entertainment, and freelancers.

Supervisor Gregg Hart punctuated the weekly COVID report on Tuesday by stating that state unemployment paid on average $1,350 per month, with many getting less than that. “It doesn’t take an economist to understand how difficult it is to pay rent and survive in Santa Barbara County on $1,350 a month when our housing costs are some of the highest in the state,” Hart said. He predicted the loss would ripple through the entire economy, which was approaching Depression-level hardship.

The United States holds the unenviable position at the top of the death list for countries, having just passed 150,000 people who have died from COVID-19. The number of cases surpasses 4.4 million. California occupies the top spot for total cases in the nation: 471,310 on July 28. More than 8,600 people have died in the state.

The disease that has put 24,000 people out of work in Santa Barbara County was headed upward so quickly that Cottage Hospital canceled some elective surgeries to keep its beds available, the county suspended personal care businesses again, and indoor dining was ordered to take place outdoors only. The 10-day delay in test results makes it difficult to interpret trends in daily positive cases, but the past seven-day total is 850 new cases compared to 993 for the seven days before that. It was 559 for the previous seven-day period starting July 7. A more certain statistic might be hospitalizations, which hit a high of 86 patients on July 23 and has gradually declined to 79 as of July 27.

Democrats on the Hill passed the HEROES Act in May to replenish the unemployment fund as well as provide food and housing assistance, farm payments, expanded COVID testing, $1,200 to individuals, and $1 trillion in funding to states. It went next to the Senate, where Republicans, who hold the majority, began to take the matter up only last week. No money goes to states in the Republican bill released late on Monday, although the strictures are loosened somewhat for the $150 billion to states in the CARES Act from March.

As well as setting the unemployment stimulus at $200, the Republican bill, which is still in negotiations with Democrats, funds another $1,200 in payments to households and $500 to dependents. It would also protect businesses, schools, and hospitals from COVID liability claims to some degree. An education-focused portion includes $70 billion to schools, $30 billion to colleges, and $5 billion to state governors to spend on schools. The Democrats allocated $100 billion before fall school closures were announced because of the spiraling pandemic, and House Leader Nancy Pelosi announced she would push to increase the amount.

Assemblymember Limón called on legislators to find a compromise as the pandemic worsens: “It is critical that representatives work together to find the best temporary relief to help the most affected during this crisis.”

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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