Alaska Public Media: As pandemic worsens, Alaskans’ patience wears thin for a new relief bill from Congress

A few months after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Kate Stavick was furloughed from her job as a college recruiter in the Mat-Su, which paid her $3,000 a month.

When a federal boost to the unemployment insurance program expired, Stavick’s benefits dropped to roughly $300 a week — far less than what she earned in her job.

Since then, she and her husband have skipped fishing and hunting trips, to allow her husband to keep working. They canceled an anniversary trip. And they’re spending more time at home — not so much because of the pandemic, but to avoid spending money, Stavick said. And now, her unemployment benefits are set to run out at the end of the month.

 “I’m terrified,” said Stavick, 49. “I’ve dipped into my savings to get us through Christmas. But after that, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Stavick, who lives in the Mat-Su town of Houston, is one of the roughly 40,000 unemployed Alaskans who Congress has left in limbo amid the intensifying COVID-19 pandemic.

When the virus took hold early in the year, lawmakers passed a bipartisan relief package, the CARES Act, that granted cash directly to people and businesses, boosted weekly unemployment insurance payments by $600 and sent money to states to help fill budget gaps.

Since then, though, Congress has failed to negotiate another aid bill, even after some of the key elements in the original package have expired. And frustration and impatience with Congress is building among out-of-work Alaskans and local leaders, who say that the lack of a social safety net has made it far more painful to maintain the health mandates aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re left holding the empty bag and the full morgue, while they sit up in their ivory towers and send us mixed messages,” said Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant. “People are going to lose their lives if the feds don’t do their job. Do your job.”

Anchorage Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, whose order closing city restaurants and bars to in-person service took effect Tuesday, has also called on Alaska’s Congressional delegation to help pass a new relief bill. And more than a dozen state representatives, including members from both parties, signed a letter Tuesday calling for more federal aid “as soon as possible.”

“The stories we hear of businesses on the edge of closing, families with depleted savings, and organizations and governments preparing to make devastating cuts to staff and services requires the utmost urgency,” they wrote.

In addition to the relief programs that have already ended, more are set to expire at the end of the year without Congressional action.

That includes the unemployment payments that the CARES Act extends to freelance and gig workers, who normally don’t qualify for benefits. Some 10,000 Alaskans were receiving money through that program as of mid-November, according to state data.

After months of gridlock over pandemic relief in Washington, D.C., a glimmer of hope emerged Tuesday in a new $900 billion compromise aid package proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers, including U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The proposed framework, which is still light on details, includes $300 a week in unemployment benefits for roughly four months, plus some $300 billion for small businesses. 

Both House Democrats and Senate Republican leaders have offered their own new plans, too.

But there are still no guarantees that an aid bill will be approved before President-elect Joe Biden and a new Congress start work next month. Democratic lawmakers favor a larger package than their Republican counterparts, with more money for state and local governments, while GOP lawmakers are pushing for a smaller package that includes provisions shielding businesses and other entities from certain COVID-19-related lawsuits.

“The response that we got today to our proposal has been positive,” Murkowski said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I won’t say it’s overwhelming — there’s still a lot of questions.”

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young were unavailable for interviews, their offices said.

Sullivan is “carefully considering” the proposal from Murkowski’s group, and his top priorities are that “hardworking Alaskans and our small businesses get the relief they need, and that individual groups of Alaskans aren’t discriminated against,” spokeswoman Amanda Coyne wrote in an email.

Young understands Alaskans’ “frustration and anger” about the expiration of federal aid programs, and “remains committed to getting things safely back on track,” spokesman Zack Brown wrote in an email. Young will carefully review the idea from Murkowski’s group if those lawmakers release detailed language, and he’ll also give “fair consideration” to any new legislation from House and Senate leaders, Brown said.

For now, Congress’ stalemate is causing consternation not just among unemployed Alaskans and elected officials, but among economists, too.

The “obvious response” to a recession is to use social programs to stimulate demand, support people and reduce pain, said Kevin Berry, an economics professor at University of Alaska Anchorage who’s studied pandemics.

And the federal government can afford to be more generous right now because of the low interest rates it’s paying on its debt, Berry added.

“I hate the phrase, ‘It’s Econ 101.’ But this is Econ 101,” Berry said. “It’s inexplicable and inexcusable at this point that we don’t have a second CARES Act.”

In Anchorage, where a vocal group of conservative activists has protested restrictions on businesses and restaurants, a top city official said that a new aid package would help ease some of the tensions around the local government’s handling of the pandemic.

“It would lower the temperature in every room,” said Jason Bockenstedt, the acting mayor’s chief of staff. “We’re making decisions that are impacting people’s lives, and in a lot of cases, impacting them in a negative way from an economic standpoint. But we are trying to balance the public health needs of the entire community.”

Stavick, who lost her college recruiting job earlier this year, said it’s been dispiriting to follow news coverage of Congress’ inaction — something she’s had more time for since she hasn’t been working. She described frustration both with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unwillingness to compromise, and with Young’s dismissive comments about COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

It doesn’t feel like elected officials “have a clue about what it’s like to be a working, middle-class person, at all,” Stavick said.

“It just feels glaringly obvious that they have lost touch,” she added. “Don’t give us your words. Give us action. Words aren’t going to pay the bills. Words aren’t going to put food in our freezers.”

Murkowski said she senses a perception among Alaskans that members of Congress have not been responsive, and that they’re “off in their own bubble.”

But one thing that’s made negotiations challenging, she added, is how the virus is affecting areas of the country differently. Some states are facing major revenue shortfalls, while others — like in warmer places where restaurants can continue outdoor dining — aren’t as affected, Murkowski said.

Some of Murkowski’s colleagues may not understand why others want to put more money toward relief for state governments, she said, while they also might have trouble grasping her desire for more aid to the fishing industry, which is a major employer in Alaska.

“Understanding where we’re all coming from and why America is just so different and so challenging is part of our job here,” she said.

Nonetheless, Murkowski added, “Alaskans have made it very clear to me that they need additional COVID relief.”

“What I’m trying to do is provide assistance for those who are most vulnerable,” she said. “The need is urgent. The need is now. It can’t wait until a new Congress. It can’t wait until we are in a better mood with one another. We have an obligation to be responsive.”

By:  Nat Herz
Source: Alaska Public Media