Businesses and states launch own relief funds as congressional talks stall

Businesses and states launch own relief funds as congressional talks stall
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As negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over a new round of coronavirus relief drag on with little hope of a quick resolution in sight, some businesses are stepping in to help out-of-work employees pay the bills.

Dozens of businesses that have been sidelined by lockdown orders have created funds to support their employees in recent weeks, after gridlock on Capitol Hill left an added unemployment benefit expire at the end of July.

Self Esteem Brands, a Minneapolis-based fitness company that owns Anytime Fitness and The Bar Method, will offer one-time grants of $500 to employees. An owner of Great Clips franchises in Central Texas is paying employees who have been furloughed. The University of Oregon seeded an employee relief fund with $50,000 last week, more than half of which has already been distributed.

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“This year has been incredibly challenging for our members, employees, franchise owners and their staffs and our communities,” Chuck Runyon, Self Esteem Brands’ chef executive, said in a release announcing his firm’s $1 million fund. The fund “is a way that we can help them navigate this uncertainty as our franchise owners, clubs and studios work to adapt to a new normal in the fitness and wellness industry.”

The new programs are a sign of just how many Americans have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession that has followed — and how close the nation is to a catastrophe of layoffs, evictions and widespread food insecurity.

More than half of American households have lost income or jobs during the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Black and Hispanic families, those without a college degree and younger people are disproportionately likely to say they have lost employment or wages.

About 10 percent of Americans who pay either rent or a mortgage were unable to make payments or had payments deferred last month, the Census Bureau survey found. About 15 percent said they had no confidence or only slight confidence in their ability to pay next month’s mortgage or rent, as eviction moratoria are set to expire in many states.

Already, an estimated 14 million households with children under the age of 18 say they do not always have enough food. Almost 11 million households said they were not confident they would be able to afford food over the next four weeks.

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Absent Congressional action, some states are stepping in with their own grants. California legislators are debating a package that would entirely replace the expired $600 weekly benefit for workers who are out of a job.

“If that benefit is working in the short term, I don’t know why we’re stopping it, because the last thing we need is thousands of people evicted onto the streets,” Assembly Budget Committee chairman Phil Ting (D) told a local television station last week.

Pennsylvania last month unveiled a $50 million grant program to employers that provide hazard pay bonuses to front-line workers. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) rolled out his version of a similar program this week, a $28 million fund to supplement the salaries of health care and public safety workers. Louisiana doled out one-time payments of $250 to front-line workers earning less than $50,000 a year.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate BrownKate BrownCalifornia fire becomes largest in state history Pac-12 moves toward 'return to competition' after Big Ten announces resumption of football season Oregon opens first mobile morgue amid wildfires MORE (D) launched a fund to pay agricultural workers either recovering from or self-quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus.

Other states are likely to face more pressure to provide relief as August drags on and Congress remains stalemated. There are few signs that the House, which has passed a $3 trillion package, and the Senate, which has introduced but not passed a $1 trillion package, will agree to terms with the White House anytime soon.

“We understand where we are and where they are,” Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinHillicon Valley: DOJ proposes tech liability shield reform to Congress | Treasury sanctions individuals, groups tied to Russian malign influence activities | House Republican introduces bill to set standards for self-driving cars Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security Treasury sanctions individuals, groups tied to Russian malign influence activities MORE told reporters Thursday. “I think there’s a lot of issues we are close to a compromise position on, but I think there’s a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart.”

Jordain Carney contributed.