Hundreds of thousands of Georgians losing their jobless benefits this week will likely wait a while to receive help from the federal relief package Congress has passed.
None of the help can flow yet, with fresh delays after the president balked Tuesday at signing the bipartisan legislation.
Delays will be painful for many who have been jobless since early in the pandemic, but Georgia's Department of Labor just doesn't have the information it needs to start passing money to claimants, said spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright.
"Every department of labor across the nation is waiting for guidelines," she added.
The bill extends federal unemployment benefits by 11 weeks. It also provides a $300-a-week subsidy through March 14 to anyone receiving unemployment benefits, including gig workers and self-employed, who didn't ordinarily qualify for jobless benefits. The measure also adds a new $100-a-week payment to workers who have both wage and self-employment income under certain guidelines.
"These new enhancements could take months," Cartwright said. "Some of the provisions should be able to be implemented fairly quickly, but most of the new additions in the bill are going to take a substantial amount of time."
The bill also funds direct payments of $600 to individuals, but that program would be handled by the Treasury Department. President Donald Trump on Tuesday called for $2,000 direct payments, an increase that Democrats support.
A host of federal programs were created by the CARES Act in March as the pandemic took hold. About 12 million Americans, including more than 300,000 Georgians, have been receiving payments that will expire Saturday — the day after Christmas. An estimated 85,000 Georgians have already exhausted their eligibility.
With unemployment still high and the coronavirus still spreading, Congress this week hashed out a $900 billion package that extends benefits and sends one-time payments to most Americans.
While not explicitly threatening a veto, Trump late Tuesday angrily criticized the bill as "a disgrace" and called on Congress to recast it, including removing a number of provisions.
Congress might rework the bill. And if Trump vetoes the bill, Congress can override that objection. Either way, it means a longer gap in benefit payments for Georgians.
Claimants can look to food stamps and some charities to plug holes in their budgets, and they would eventually be paid what they were owed, said Caitlin Highland, spokeswoman for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. "Of course, that doesn't mean delays are fine — families need this money now."
In June, Earl McCarthy, 46, of College Park, lost his job in sales for a luxury senior living community and he's been looking for work since.
"I had a couple interviews, but nothing has panned out," he said. "The competition is fierce."
His wife had been teaching but is immunocompromised and unable to work because of the coronavirus. Without the benefits, they couldn't stay afloat, McCarthy said. "I can get by for maybe three months, but that is really stretching it."
The COVID relief bill includes aid for households with their rent and childcare, help for schools, airports, and the U.S. Postal Service.
Small businesses also got help, including more forgivable loans and permission to take deductions for expenses covered by many loans under the pandemic program, said Nathan Humphrey, Georgia director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
Small businesses — which employ the majority of Georgians — are walking a tightrope, he said.
A recent NFIB survey showed one of every four small businesses think they will die if business doesn't get better soon, Humphrey said. "These guys are cash flow dependent. They don't have a lot saved up. Most have two or three weeks reserve and when that's gone, that's it."
The bill's provisions were less generous than the massive CARES Act. Some economists urged larger payments to individuals, a longer extension of benefits and robust aid to state and local governments, which employ 588,400 people in Georgia, according to data compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.
Damage to public payrolls will ripple through a community, said economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. "You start laying off firefighters and teachers and they spend less and that hurts your local businesses."
Many households are struggling with expenses, falling behind on rent payments and scrimping on food, according to the Census Bureau's surveys. But the COVID vaccines are rolling out and the relief bill could keep many people from catastrophe for a few months.
"Many people are already making terrible choices because of the cuts to their income," Shierholz said. "But this is a bridge, even if it's a wobbly bridge."