Stimulus update: COVID-19 pandemic relief set to expire in Illinois as Congress negotiates aid package. Here’s what to know.

Robert Channick, Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Abdel Jimenez, Ryan Ori and Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune
·9 min read

The clock is ticking as Congress aims to pass a fresh round of coronavirus aid before the end of the year.

The $2.2 trillion pandemic relief package passed in March introduced a host of financial assistance programs, including an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits and direct cash payments of up to $1,200 to most Americans.

A $908 billion bipartisan proposal unveiled this week called for an extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits but no stimulus checks. The White House later introduced an alternative that would eliminate the extra weekly unemployment benefits in favor of a direct $600 stimulus payment.

As lawmakers continue to negotiate, several federal programs tied to the March package are set to expire, while other forms of pandemic relief have been extended.

Here’s what to know.

Cash payments

Cook County reopened a cash assistance program this week providing one-time payments of $600 to people who have struggled financially during the pandemic and make less than $65,500 a year for a family of four. Suburban residents can apply through Friday at https://www.cookcountyil.gov/recovery.

The program is funded through federal coronavirus relief money and paid out $2.1 million to more than 3,000 suburban Cook County residents in the first round of aid in late October. Since then, $9 million has been added to the program, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said during a news conference Monday.

The IRS made more than 6 million payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child in Illinois as part of the March pandemic relief bill.

Nearly 310,000 people in Illinois did not automatically receive the payments because they had not filed federal income taxes.

Those who missed the Nov. 21 deadline to register online can obtain the money by claiming the Recovery Rebate Credit on next year’s taxes, according to Jody Chong, associate director of research and policy at the Heartland Alliance in Chicago.

More information is available at www.GetMyPaymentIL.org.

Unemployment benefits

Roughly 447,500 Illinoisans are at risk of losing unemployment benefits when federal coronavirus relief programs expire Dec. 26, according to the state’s Department of Employment Security. An additional 40,000 people on regular state unemployment insurance may exhaust their benefits before the end of January if the federal programs are not extended, agency spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said via email.

The week ending Nov. 28, about 231,000 people filed continued claims for benefits under a federal pandemic emergency program providing an additional 13 weeks of benefits to people who exhaust their initial 26 weeks of regular state benefits.

Another 29,000 people filed continued claims under the state’s extended benefits program, which provides up to 20 weeks and kicks in after the 13-week federal pandemic emergency extension is exhausted. After Dec. 26, the state extension drops from 20 weeks to 13.

More people have received benefits on these two programs in recent weeks than at any point during the pandemic, Cisco said.

A measure giving 39 weeks of benefits to self-employed workers under the March relief bill is also set to expire Dec. 26.

Cisco said Congress needs to continue existing federal programs, because implementing new programs will slow down the agency’s ability to pay out benefits.

“Any change in program-type that requires the Department to create or make technical changes internally can be problematic and time-consuming,” Cisco said.

Consumer debt relief

Relief for people with federal student loans, previously set to expire Dec. 31, has been extended through Jan. 31. The measures temporarily pausing loan payments, collections and interest accrual apply only to loans held by the U.S. Department of Education.

Several credit card companies offered temporary assistance for cardholders struggling to make payments early in the pandemic. Some of those measures are no longer available.

American Express is letting people on short-term payment plans continue making purchases on their credit cards, with a lower credit limit.

Discover ended a formal pandemic assistance program in October but is providing assistance for customers who request help, spokesman Derek Cuculich said in an email. Options will vary but may still include the ability to skip a payment.

Fifth Third Bank is offering some borrowers reduced payments or interest rates for up to six months. The bank is developing longer-term programs and encourages people to reach out to learn their options, spokesman Larry Magnesen said.

Illinois also has measures protecting wages and cash in bank accounts from debt collectors as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus-related executive orders, set to expire Saturday. The governor has been extending the orders every 30 days.

However, a provision of a separate executive order suspending vehicle repossessions was rescinded in August.

Utility assistance

ComEd, Nicor Gas, North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas are among utilities that have voluntarily stopped disconnections for all residential customers through March 31, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The utilities also agreed to deferred payment arrangements and bill payment assistance programs, ICC spokeswoman Victoria Crawford said.

A ComEd program that offered a one-time grant of up to $300 for eligible customers to pay past due bills has nearly exhausted its $1.8 million in funding since launching last month, spokesman Tom Dominguez said.

A separate $18 million program offering up to $500 to limited-income customers to pay past due invoices still has ample funds available, he said.

Less assistance may be available from broadband providers during the second wave of COVID-19 than in the spring.

Comcast suspended service disconnections and late fees for internet customers who couldn’t pay their bills at the onset of the pandemic, but has since resumed both, spokesman Jack Segal said.

Comcast is offering free internet for 60 days through the Internet Essentials service for low-income families, and free access to more than 1.5 million public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots through June 30.

Last month, AT&T announced a $10 million commitment to provide at-risk students in underserved communities with free internet service during the pandemic. Like Comcast, AT&T has resumed service disconnections and late fees.

Housing protections

Barring an adverse court ruling, Pritzker is expected to extend an eviction moratorium for renters, along with his other coronavirus-related executive orders, when it expires Saturday.

Statewide protections have been amended to prohibit renters with higher incomes — $99,000 for individuals and $198,000 for couples who file joint tax returns — from seeking relief. Other exceptions include residents who pose a risk to the health and safety of other building residents.

Renters who avoid eviction still will owe back rent.

A nationwide eviction moratorium is among the federal protections set to expire at the end of the year if no new coronavirus relief is passed.

The proposed relief package calls for $25 billion to go to rental tenants who have fallen behind on payments, as well as a potential extension of the eviction moratorium.

The Federal Housing Finance Authority recently announced lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would extend their moratorium on foreclosures until at least Jan. 31. The moratorium had been set to expire at the end of this year.

Homeowners with federally backed loans have applied for mortgage relief during the pandemic, with some borrowers allowed to suspend monthly payments without late fees or foreclosure.

At the end of September, 4.1% of Fannie May’s single-family borrowers were in loan forbearance, mostly related to COVID-19, the company said in its third-quarter earnings news release.

Paid leave

A mandate that employers give workers paid leave for COVID-19-related needs is set to expire Dec. 31. The requirement, part of the March relief bill, gives employees 14 days of paid sick time if they get sick with COVID-19 or have to quarantine, plus 10 weeks at two-thirds their pay rate to care for a child whose school or daycare is closed because of COVID-19. The law applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees. Companies receive payroll tax credits to offset the cost.

The relief bill being negotiated in Congress does not include extension of COVID-19-related leave. Advocates are concerned that people will be inclined to work sick if they don’t have paid leave or will suffer economic instability if they have to take time off without pay.

Food aid

A federal program that helped ensure food pantries had a steady supply of fresh meat, produce and dairy is set to end Dec. 31, putting a huge dent in charity food supplies even as the need grows.

The $4.5 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which began in May and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pays distributors to buy food from farmers and package it into boxes to give to charities. It has funded 126 million boxes.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank, which expects to receive its last boxes Dec. 18, is concerned about its food supply as the program ends. A third of the meals distributed in its 13-county service area from May through November came from the program, and already it has spent twice as much money as last year to purchase food, said Julia Lemp, marketing communications specialist at the Geneva-based organization. The charity continues to see a 60% increase in need because of the pandemic, with up to half of customers accessing food charities for the first time, she said.

The food boxes have been the largest source of food distributed through the Greater Chicago Food Depository since its fiscal year started in July. Without them, the charity, which serves Cook County, will need community support to meet the need, said Sheila Creghin, vice president of operations.

“We expect to spend at least three times more on food purchasing than last fiscal year,” Creghin said.

About 23% of households, and 30% with children, reported being food insecure in a recent U.S. Census pulse survey, compared with about 10% during normal times.

Other pandemic-fueled efforts to expand food access will continue. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will continue to give qualifying families the maximum allotment regardless of income for as long as there is a declared federal or state public health emergency.

An emergency program through SNAP that offered extra food benefits to families that depended on schools to provide free or reduced-price meals for their kids has been extended through next September.

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