The unprecedented $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package agreed to by Congress and President Donald Trump is expected to potentially unlock billions of dollars in aid for Washington state governments, transit, businesses and hospitals — as well as send direct payments to most adults.
Exactly how and when the money will flow here was not immediately clear as the final package had not yet been voted on as of late Wednesday afternoon and negotiations were ongoing amid partisan disagreements over last-minute changes.
Aides to Gov. Jay Inslee stressed it may take days or weeks to digest details of the 800-plus-page emergency spending measure, the largest in U.S. history.
The package — which some are already arguing is insufficient and may need to be revisited — reportedly would send $1,200 payments to most American adults; establish a $367-billion loan program for small businesses; and a $500 billion loan fund for industries. It also reportedly extends unemployment benefits and includes $100 billion nationally for hospitals, which are struggling financially while on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
For most Washington residents, the most immediate impact of the agreement is likely to arrive in the form of onetime payments of $1,200 for each adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 per married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments for each child. Those making more than $75,000 would see smaller payments based on their income.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday those checks “should help those who have been hit hardest by this disease, to help in these sustaining days in which we are sheltering in place in the state of Washington.”
But the money may dry up fast for Washingtonians who get laid off, even accounting for unemployment benefits, said Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington.
“A $1,200 check from the government, or if you are a married couple $2,400, that does a decent job of filling a big part of the hole for a month. And then the question is what happens next month,” said Vigdor. “We’re potentially looking at a situation that could stretch out for more than a couple months — and there are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck.”
Vigdor said if the coronavirus pandemic is not slowed in a couple of months, “we could be in a situation where Congress has to get back together, to see where the cracks start to develop in the economy.”
Still, there are elements of the spending package that were being welcomed as urgently needed relief for sectors including health care in Washington, where 2,580 coronavirus cases have been confirmed, and 132 deaths, according to figures released Wednesday.
The aid to hospitals in Washington should be “a real lifeline,” even if exact allocations are not yet known, said Chelene Whiteaker, senior vice president for government relations at the Washington State Hospital Association. “We need the money to start flowing fast,” Whiteaker said, pointing to crashing revenues that threaten to shut down some smaller hospitals.
In Brewster, Three Rivers Hospital has been in danger of not meeting payroll, and recently received $143,000 in emergency funds from the state, said Scott Graham, CEO of the public hospital that employs 90 people and serves a wide swath of Okanogan County in north-central Washington. The 25-bed hospital has not had any coronavirus patients — only one person in the county has tested positive — but a ban on elective surgeries has hurt finances at the already cash-strapped facility.
“I am ecstatic that this is happening,” said Graham of the federal stimulus package, which he figures will let money filter down to his hospital through the state. “It will help us through this crisis currently, but we don’t know if it will be enough, because we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to require social isolation,” he said.
More than 400,000 workers in the Puget Sound region are in industries facing immediate risk due to impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, and more than 500,000 additional workers are in industries facing near-term risk, a white paper commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said last week.
The region’s economy is experiencing “an economic shock that will take many months and beyond to recover from,” with results likely in the form of wage reductions or at least temporary layoffs in about 40% of the approximately 2 million jobs in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to the study by the Seattle-based research firm Community Attributes Inc.
Aides to Inslee were monitoring the final stimulus package negotiations and had no detailed comment on its components Wednesday afternoon. The full effect of the shutdowns of business and daily life on state government coffers won’t be known until the next revenue forecast in June, but the state’s budget director said an employment and tax-collection crash is surely coming.
“We know that coming up we are going to have tremendous problems. We are likely going to lose billions of dollars in the revenue forecast that is coming,” said David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management. “We have about $3 billion in reserves, thankfully, but we have to plan for a day when we spend through that just to keep current services.”
Dwight Dively, King County budget director, said he could only speculate how much money from the spending package will be directed to Washington’s most populous county and when the dollars will arrive.
But Dively does expect the package to help the county cover emergency expenses that are escalating daily. “There’s a lot of good stuff that’s going to really help King County,” he said, pointing to a $150 billion line item for state and local governments and a $25 billion line item for transit systems.
It’s not yet clear how those funds are going to be divided up, but Washington is home to about 1 in 50 Americans, Dively said. That could mean $3 billion for the state and its local governments. He said King County likely has spent “$20 million or more” buying and setting up sites to shelter and isolate people during the emergency and will be spending more to operate them.
The county isn’t as exposed to budget problems overall as the city of Seattle because it depends less on business taxes. But King County Metro, which runs on sales taxes and fares, is getting hit hard, Dively said. “We presumably will get a very substantial piece” of the transit funds in the stimulus, he predicted.
Transit funding in the package is aimed at covering operating costs, not stimulus-style construction projects, said Jeff Davis, a fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, in an online briefing Wednesday. “This is an attempt to stem the bleeding that’s caused by the lack of demand,” he said.
King County Metro and Sound Transit, like other transit agencies throughout the country, asked federal lawmakers to include them in a bailout as ridership plummets, sales taxes are expected to take a hit and cleaning costs increase. Metro estimated it was losing about $6 million a week in sales taxes and lost fares as ridership fell due to workplace closures and social distancing measures.
The measure reportedly would extend existing unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, which in Washington would mean unemployed workers could receive up to 39 weeks of benefits.
The benefits also may be available for “gig” workers, such as freelancers and ride-share drivers, who are not considered employees under federal law and are not always eligible for benefits under Washington’s current unemployment insurance program.
Such provisions are welcome, but some advocates say more should be done to boost pay and benefits for people delivering groceries, meals and medicine — now deemed “essential” services not subject to Inslee’s stay-at-home order. Working Washington, a labor-backed activist group, launched a campaign this week to pressure companies like Instacart, the grocery delivery service, to offer $5-per-delivery “hazard pay,” 14 days of paid sick leave and protective gear to its contract employees.
Julie S., who has been delivering for Instacart in Seattle, said she fears for her personal safety and has suffered anxiety attacks as she picks up and drives groceries to customers. She did not want to give her last name, fearing Instacart will fire her. She said getting a $1,200 stimulus check would help her and allow her to temporarily work fewer hours, but that Congress should do more. “It’s hard. If we’re considered an essential worker, we should be paid like that,” she said.
A summary of the stimulus package prepared by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office shows $3 billion in rental assistance included for housing providers to help millions of low-income households currently receiving federal subsidies.
The most prominent concern for the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) is costs related to tenants losing work due to the pandemic, spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin said. People living in SHA buildings pay 30% of their incomes in rent, which means the agency’s share will grow as incomes shrink. SHA also will be cutting larger checks to private landlords who rent to tenants with Section 8 vouchers provided by the agency.
Leahy’s summary says the $3 billion would include $1.9 billion to help agencies like SHA keep public housing and voucher tenants stably housed and an additional $1 billion to maintain contracts with landlords who operate subsidized rentals.
On top of an earlier $50 billion Small Business Administration loan program, Wednesday’s stimulus package reportedly contains $350 billion in new loans for small businesses that keep workers on the payroll during the crisis. Companies that agree to retain workers may also be eligible for loans to help cover operating expenses, and which would be forgiven if the business kept workers on for as long as the crisis lasts.
As news of the stimulus package filtered through the Seattle-area business community, some owners expressed cautious optimism, but questioned how the programs would work. It was unclear, for example, whether businesses that have already laid off workers would be eligible for the aid. Another concern: how federal officials will determine whether a small business has met the requirements to have loans forgiven.
If not, “that is money you’ll have to pay back” later, said Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell, who closed all but six of his 16 Seattle area restaurants. “We would mostly like to figure out how to get employees back on my payroll without having to take a loan out to do it.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Sydney Brownstone, Paul Roberts and Heidi Groover contributed to this report.