Several COVID-19 relief programs are set to expire at the end of the year, if Congress and the White House do not act. Lawmakers and the Trump administration have been debating another round of stimulus for months now, but with no deal in sight it looks like more existing provisions could disappear before any new help arrives.
Some of the programs included in the CARES Act earlier this year have already lapsed. The Paycheck Protection Program stopped accepting new applications in August and the $600 in enhanced unemployment benefits stopped at the end of July.
As COVID cases continue to rise, experts say letting more programs expire could be devastating for struggling Americans and slow the economic recovery.
“It could mean that we actually go into another recession,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s like a massive anti-stimulus action. Instead of spending that money and stimulating the economy, Congress is letting it expire, cutting off that spending, which will drag on the economy radically.”
Unemployment insurance expansions
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs both expire at the end of the year if Washington does not intervene.
PUA allows workers who are not typically eligible for unemployment insurance (gig workers, independent contractors) to access benefits. PEUC provides an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, after their state benefits run out.
“We’ll see increases in poverty. We’ll see people facing just impossible decisions between things like paying rent and buying medicine,” said Shierholz. In fact, in October 1 million more Americans fell below the poverty threshold, a study from the University of Chicago found. A total of 7 million Americans have entered poverty since May.
A recent report found more than 12 million people could lose their benefits if these programs lapse. Another 778,000 workers filed for benefits last week, the Labor Department reported Wednesday, and the total number of people claiming unemployment benefits in all programs in the latest week was 20,452,223, an increase from the prior period and exponentially higher than the 1,487,844 people in the comparable year-ago time frame.
Unemployment insurance was a point of contention throughout stimulus negotiations. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D., Mass.) said letting the $600 weekly boost expire was already a “huge blow” to many Americans and letting PUA and PEUC expire would make things even worse.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Neal said it is “imperative” to extend the programs before the end of the year.
“The CARES Act saved the American economy,” said Neal. “Of all the provisions that we put together, I think perhaps one of the most important, if not the most sound, was the extension and expansion of unemployment insurance. I think it allowed people not only to make rent payments and mortgage payments, but it also allowed those to simultaneously embrace liquidity and create demand.”
Negotiations have been stalled for months, but Neal said he’s hopeful the upcoming government funding deadline on Dec.11 will lead to results.
“There might be an opportunity there to attach a targeted relief package in terms of unemployment insurance. We can’t let unemployment insurance expire,” said Neal.
After watching months of gridlock in Washington, several experts told Yahoo Finance they aren’t optimistic.
“It’s unthinkable to me that we’re in this position, but I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like something’s going to happen in the lame duck,” said Shierholz.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control issued an order to halt evictions through Dec. 31, aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Renters who meet certain income requirements and experienced a “substantial loss” of income qualify for the temporary relief. They also have to make “best efforts” to pay as much rent as they can.
When the ban expires at the end of the year, renters will have to pay up. The order did not include any assistance to help struggling renters come up with the money. Democratic lawmakers have pushed for rent forgiveness in a future round of relief.
Student loan forbearance
Temporary student loan relief is set to expire at the end of the year as well.
In response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, President Trump ordered the Department of Education to temporarily suspend loan payments, stop collections and waive interest on federally-backed student loans through Dec. 31.
“It is somewhat a perfect storm that folks are going to have a lot of expenses coming due in January if Congress or the president doesn’t act — and it’s going to put people in a very bad place at a time when the pandemic is getting to be the worst,” said Persis Yu, National Consumer Law Center attorney and director of NCLC’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.
Trump or President-elect Biden could decide to extend the forbearance, but if it ends, millions of people will have to start making payments again. Yu is worried borrowers will be taken by surprise.
“Many people are going to be caught unaware of the payments turning back on,” said Yu. “It’s going to have a devastating impact on their ability to maintain stable housing and feed their families and all the other things that folks need to do right now.”
Some experts and lawmakers say putting a pause on student loan payments is not enough.
“January is not a reasonable time to turn this back on,” said Yu. “Moreover, we know that this is really just kicking the can down the road. We need broad cancellation, to help borrowers recover.”
Biden has proposed cancelling $10,000 in student debt for millions of Americans, but experts say it’s not clear if he will do so.
“One of the big lessons we’ve learned is that the pandemic is highlighting a lot of systemic problems that we have,” said Yu. “It’s important to take stock of why these problems exist in the first place and what can we do to make sure that they don’t happen again.”
State and local funding
State and local governments have until Dec. 30 to spend the $150 billion given to them in the CARES Act. If they don’t use the money, it has to be returned to the federal government.
An October survey from the National Governors Association showed that most states and territories (of 42 surveyed) are on target to use the money in time, but they also want the deadline to be extended.
State and local leaders have struggled to disburse the money and say complicated rules and changing guidelines from the Treasury Department made things difficult. They’re also asking for hundreds of billions of dollars more to avoid public-sector layoffs as the pandemic continues.
State and local funding has been a major sticking point for negotiators throughout the months of stimulus talks.
Paid family leave
Through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, lawmakers expanded access to paid leave for workers who got sick or who may have to take care of others during the pandemic.
The provision provided two extra weeks of paid sick days to workers at businesses with fewer than 500 employees who caught COVID-19, were in quarantine, or were caring for sick relatives. Workers also could receive an extra 10 weeks of paid leave to care for children if their daycare or school was closed due to the coronavirus.
Those benefits are currently set to expire on Dec. 31.
“It just creates this massive cliff,” said Shierholz. “The interaction of UI, student debt forbearance, the eviction moratorium…paid sick leave, things that are expiring. It’s a just disaster, absolutely of our own making.”
The Paycheck Protection Program stopped accepting loans back in August, but another small-business relief program will soon end as well.
Small businesses can apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) through Dec. 21. The loans provide businesses with a low-interest loan of up to $150,000. Some lawmakers have pushed to extend the program, add additional funding and remove the “arbitrary” cap on loans.
Biden has encouraged lawmakers to pass another stimulus package during the lame-duck session, but so far there seems to be little sign of progress on Capitol Hill. The Georgia Senate runoffs will determine which party controls the Senate and what the next relief bill looks like, if Congress doesn’t act before Biden takes office.
While Biden can use executive authority to grant some relief, experts say it’s Congress that can really make a difference.
“The power that the president has on a fiscal stimulus is just like a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed,” Shierholz.
Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.