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Valley businesses, employees feel the impact of surge amid expired COVID pay protections

Local organizations and businesses in Coachella Valley are scaling back on some operations and hours as the Omicron-fueled COVID surge pushes their staffing limits.

The surge is also coming at a cost to many workers, who are asked to quarantine after federal COVID-19 pay protections have expired.

In 2020, Congress guaranteed many workers two weeks of pay if they contracted Covid-19 or were quarantining. It also provided an additional 10 weeks of paid family leave to those who were staying home with kids whose schools were closed or caring for an ill family member. Those benefits expired at the end of 2020, but the government continued to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily chose to offer the benefit through October 1.

Although those aid packages have expired, the pandemic has raged on. As News Channel 3 has reported, staffing shortages have forced changes in the hours and operations of many restaurants, court proceedings, community facilities, and upcoming events.

Sherman's Deli and Bakery in Palm Springs is one of the local businesses who had to close one day a week due to staffing shortages. The owner, Sam Harris, said this has never happened before.

"We pick tuesdays, that's one of our slower days and the guys are getting time off," said Harris. "They'll work seven days a week if if they needed to but I don't want them to work like that. They need a life. They need to take care of themselves too."

He said he is struggling to find people to hire and his sales are down.

"It's a punch in the gut. You know, we've never had to do anything like this but there's others that are doing the same thing I am," said Harris.

The ice cream shop Lappert's in Palm Springs is closed temporarily due to COVID related staffing shortages. It has plans to reopen on Jan. 17.

One of its employees told News Channel 3 the workers don't get compemsated past the state mandated three day paid sick leave if they need to quarantine for COVID longer.  

The president of the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce, Emily Falappino, said the chamber is producing a webinar series in February about new ways employers can find local talent to hire.

"I would encourage local businesses that are not sure how to navigate that, to reach out to a local employment law attorney. And if you don't have a contact for that reach out to the chamber, you can you can submit those types of questions, we'll share it with one of our member experts," said Falappino. "The chamber is going to be producing a list of all the in-ordinary talent pool pathways, and we'll be connecting businesses to that."

Even though the pandemic has been going on for the past couple of years, the owners Lappert's and Sherman's Deli said they have never seen the staffing shortages this bad before. 

WATCH: Staffing shortage affects popular pupusa restaurant

Other federal aid that has already expired

Stimulus checks: Low- and middle-income households received about $817 billion in federal stimulus payments sent directly to their homes or bank accounts since March 2020. The money came in three rounds, the last of which was sent in spring 2021.

Each round had slightly different qualifying parameters, but lawmakers purposely didn’t put too many limitations on the checks in order to get the cash out as quickly as possible. The lowest-income Americans got the full amount, and the value gradually phased out for those earning more.

The first round of payments was worth up to $1,200 per person, the second round was worth up to $600 per person, and the third round of payments was worth up to $1,400.

Boosted unemployment benefits: At this time last year, the jobless could look forward to several more months of enhanced pandemic unemployment benefits, including a $300 boost to their weekly payments.

Congressional Democrats renewed the three pandemic programs once again as part of the American Rescue Plan Act in March, but the beefed-up federal assistance expired nationwide on Labor Day.

In addition to providing supplemental weekly payments, Congress had expanded jobless benefits to gig workers, freelancers, independent contractors, the self-employed and certain people affected by the coronavirus. It also had extended the duration of payments for those who exhausted their regular state benefits.

The surge in Covid-19 cases since then has not prompted an increase in the unemployment rate nor in the number of people filing initial jobless claims.

Monthly enhanced child tax credit payments: Eligible families received a total of nearly $93 billion in monthly installments this year as part of the enhanced child tax credit. But the final payments were distributed on December 15.

The expansion, which is only in effect for 2021, was part of the American Rescue Plan Act. Biden and lawmakers had hoped to extend it for another year in the Build Back Better package.

Parents received up to $300 for each child up to age 6 and $250 for each one ages 6 through 17 on a monthly basis between July and December, which accounted for half of the enhanced credit. Families will get the other half when they submit their 2021 tax return next season.

In total, the expanded credit provides up to $3,600 for each younger child and up to $3,000 for each older one.

Also, more low-income parents became eligible for the full amount because lawmakers made it fully refundable. It had been only partially refundable — leaving more than 26 million children unable to get the entire credit because their families’ incomes were too low, according to Treasury Department estimates.

Paid sick and family leave: In 2020, Congress guaranteed many workers two weeks pay if they contracted Covid-19 or were quarantining. It also provided an additional 10 weeks of paid family leave to those who were staying home with kids whose schools were closed or caring for an ill family member. Those benefits expired at the end of 2020, but the government continued to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily chose to offer the benefit through October 1.

Money for small businesses: Three major federal aid programs for small businesses are no longer accepting new applications. The Paycheck Protection Program, which provided nearly $800 billion in forgivable loans, ran out of money in May.

A program that awarded grants specifically to restaurants had allocated its entire $28.6 billion pot in July, just two months after it opened. The grant program sent money to more than 100,000 restaurants but fell short of meeting the demand. It had received at least 278,000 applications totaling more than $72 billion in requested funds.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program has also stopped taking new applications, but remains open for recipients seeking a second grant. It has disbursed more than 21,300 grants, totaling $13.5 billion.

Struggling small businesses can apply for loans from the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program through December 31.

Federal aid still available

Student loan relief: Those with federal student loans have not had to make any payments since March 2020. During this time, interest has stopped adding up and collections on defaulted debt have been on hold. Borrowers’ balances have effectively been frozen if they chose not to continue making payments.

The pause on payments has been extended several times. Payments are now set to resume on May 1.

Rental assistance: Congress authorized $47 billion for emergency rental assistance over the past year, and more than half of those funds remain available.

Households are eligible for the money if they experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic, have incomes at or below 80% of their area median income, can demonstrate risk of experiencing homelessness, or already qualify for unemployment benefits.

Hundreds of state-, county- and city-run programs were created to distribute the money. They have been successful in many communities, but some were extremely slow in getting money out the door. The Treasury Department is currently shifting unused funds to places that have run out money and still have people in need.

A federal moratorium on evictions expired in August after being in place for nearly a year. Evictions have ticked up since then but remain well below the historical pre-pandemic average, according to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Health care subsidies: Americans can still access generous federal subsidies to buy Affordable Care Act policies for 2022.

The enhanced assistance, created as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, has helped attract a record number of consumers to the Obamacare exchanges. So far, more than 13.6 million people have selected plans for next year. Open enrollment ends January 15.

The beefed-up subsidies, which are only in place for this year and next, aim to address long-standing complaints that Obamacare plans are not affordable for many people, particularly the middle class.

Enrollees pay no more than 8.5% of their income toward coverage, down from nearly 10%. And lower-income policyholders and the unemployed receive subsidies that essentially eliminate their premiums.

Also, those earning more than 400% of the federal poverty level are now eligible for help for the first time.

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Marian Bouchot

Marian Bouchot is the weekend morning anchor and a reporter for KESQ News Channel 3. Learn more about Marian here.

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