The CARES Act and Unemployment Insurance: Who Is Eligible?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides important expansions to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program to help relieve some of the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment has risen at an unprecedented rate. Nationwide, over the past two weeks, nearly 10 million people applied for UI. Montana has seen its UI claims skyrocket, with over 19,000 filing during the week of March 21.

Montana is expected to be one of the states hardest hit by sharp rises in unemployment due to its high share of jobs in the retail, hospitality, and leisure industries. The state is expected to lose 68,000 jobs by summer, with a projected job loss of 17.5 percent of private-sector employment.

There are three primary expansions to UI, and confusingly, are all similarly named:

  • expanded benefit eligibility – new unemployment benefit program for those not eligible for state UI program, like self-employed workers (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance);
  • additional 11 weeks for those eligible under state UI (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation); and
  • additional $600 weekly benefit for workers receiving UI or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Many workers are not typically eligible for Unemployment Insurance. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) will cover self-employed, independent contractors, workers seeking part-time work, and workers who do not have a long enough work history to qualify for benefits. An applicant must show that they are unemployed and unable to work as a result of COVID-19 (place of work has closed; sick with or quarantined; caring for someone who is sick or quarantined; or caring for a child as a result of school or child care closure).

Workers are not eligible for PUA if they are able to telework or are receiving paid sick days or paid leave. Undocumented workers are also not eligible for PUA. PUA cannot exceed 39 weeks and expires on December 31, 2020. PUA is calculated under the amount that the state’s current law – a formula that calculates UI based on a percentage of past wages earned. Those eligible for PUA are also eligible for the additional $600 weekly benefit under Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. PUA is federally funded.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation

Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, Montana offered 28 weeks of Unemployment Insurance, more than any other state. The CARES Act allows for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), an extension of UI benefits through December 31, 2020. For Montanans, this will result in up to an additional 11 weeks of UI benefits.

The federal government will fund PEUC (that is, the federal government will pay the amount after Montana’s 28 weeks of UI). However, the state may not move to reduce the number of weeks it currently provides of UI.

Pandemic Unemployment Compensation

The CARES act substantially increases weekly unemployment benefits for claimants through July 31 through Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC). Claimants will receive the amount they would normally receive in unemployment benefits, plus an extra $600 a week. Those receiving partial unemployment benefits are also eligible for PUC.

PUC is a significant expansion of benefits – in state fiscal year 2019, the average weekly benefit for Montanans was $384, with a minimum weekly amount of $163 and a maximum amount of $552. Those receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), mentioned above, will also be eligible for PUC.

PUC is not considered income for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP, known in Montana as Healthy Montana Kids). Unemployment insurance is considered income for the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). PUC is federally funded.

If you are in need of assistance

If you are an employer looking for more information, or if you have lost work and are in need of assistance, you can find more information at the Department of Labor and Industry’s website, dli.mt.gov. If you want to submit an unemployment insurance claim, go to MontanaWorks.gov to submit an application. Answers and claims may be delayed as these programs are implemented and become fully functional.

Food Access: Changes to SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition During COVID-19

In times of crisis and uncertainty, Montanans come together to take care of each other. In the last two weeks, record numbers of people have lost their jobs and are at risk of hunger.

In order to address this crisis, Montana, the federal government, and local communities have taken great strides to help ensure no one goes hungry during this pandemic. While there is more work to be done, here is a run-down of the changes to important food programs in the state.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps)

SNAP is the nation’s “first-responder” in times of crisis. It is one of the fastest ways to not only get food on people’s tables, but to support local economies as well. There have been several changes to SNAP in the past few weeks, which will help make it easier for struggling families to eat.

  • Suspension of the work requirement – Under SNAP rules, able-bodied adults without dependents age 18-49 are expected to work. Due to widespread job losses and mandated social distancing, the work requirement has been suspended as of April 1. Adults who have lost their jobs will not have to worry about losing their SNAP assistance as well.
  • Increased benefit amounts – SNAP benefits are calculated by a formula which deducts certain expenses from a household’s income in order to determine how much they should be able to spend on food. With incomes and expenses in flux, state caseworkers taking on larger caseloads, and the need to make sure everyone can stay as healthy as possible, Montana has been able to increase every household’s benefit to the maximum benefit allowed for their household size.
  • Extended certification periods – The state has moved to extend the benefits of households whose benefits were about to expire. If a household’s benefits were set to expire in March, April, or May, they have been extended by an additional six months. This move will prevent households from falling through the cracks, and free up caseworkers to process new applications.

Child Nutrition Programs

When schools closed, many children were at risk of losing their school breakfasts and lunches. Montana has helped see that children are still able to get the food that they need.

  • School meals – Montana schools are allowed to serve meals through either the Summer Food Service Program or the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast program in a non-congregate setting. Schools are not required to offer meals, but there are currently 277 sites around the state offering meals and/or snacks to children. A list of sites that children can receive meals and/or snacks can be found here.

Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Program

WIC is a vital nutrition program which allows women with young children to purchase certain products, such as milk and produce.

  • Food package substitution – Montana has received waivers to allow WIC recipients to swap products if they are unavailable – for example, substituting frozen vegetables for fresh ones.
  • Physical Presence Waiver – WIC appointments can now be done on the telephone or computer, instead of in person. This move allows families to receive benefits without putting themselves or caseworkers in danger.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more must be done to help ensure that no one goes hungry. However, these initial steps that our communities have taken to prevent hunger will help protect thousands of Montanans in this difficult time.

State Action on Evictions, Foreclosures, and Utilities

This week, Governor Bullock issued an executive order to place a moratorium on evictions in light of COVID-19. We included this recommendation in our report released earlier this week, and it is a step that many other housing advocates are calling for. With thousands of workers facing reduced hours or layoff, families are grappling with how to cover basic necessities, like food, utilities, and housing costs. Enforcing evictions and forcing families into precarious living situations poses a threat to public health, at a time that emergency shelters or other affordable housing are all at maximum capacity.

At least 34 states have issued moratoriums on evictions, either through executive order or by court order. Governors in twenty-two other states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) have issued executive orders providing a moratorium on evictions. Montana’s executive order is consistent with these other orders.

Here is a quick rundown of Governor Bullock’s executive order:

The moratorium applies from March 31 through April 10, 2020, and applies to:

  • Evictions on residential renters when that eviction is tied to nonpayment;
  • Foreclosures on residential homeowners when that eviction is tied to nonpayment; and
  • Shutting off utilities, including electricity, water, telephone, and internet services to a dwelling unit or residence.

The order directs the courts to immediately stay (or halt) pending eviction actions, and prevents new eviction filings or enforcement during the applicable period.

The order prohibits trustee’s sale, sheriff’s sale, or other involuntary sale/foreclosure proceeding of residential property during the applicable period, and directs the courts to stay any pending foreclosure actions during the applicable period.

Landlords are also prohibited from:

  • charging late fees, interest, or other charges related to nonpayment of rent;
  • increasing rent amounts that were not previously agreed to in an existing lease;
  • requesting suspension or termination of utilities; or
  • reporting a tenant’s nonpayment to a credit agency.

The order provides an exemption from this moratorium for evictions and foreclosures that may be related to reasons other than nonpayment (for example, criminal actions or damage to the property).

The order does not apply to evictions or foreclosures of property used for commercial purposes.

We applaud Governor Bullock’s actions that continue to protect the public health and ensure families do not lose their home during this difficult period of time.

State Takes Steps on SNAP to Help Families Impacted by COVID-19

On March 23, we published a report on ways the state can help ensure no one goes hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are pleased to see the Governor has taken quick action one of the items we included: to guarantee no one’s Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) coverage will lapse during this crisis. The Federal Nutrition Service (FNS) has approved Montana’s waiver to extend household’s SNAP eligibility period. For households whose benefits were set to expire in March, April, or May, they will instead be up for recertification in September, October, or November, respectively.

This move will prevent lapses in coverage during this crisis. The vast majority of SNAP participants are seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.  Preventing gaps in coverage for these groups is essential during this public health crisis. Furthermore, extending certification periods frees up staff to work on processing new applications for those who have lost their source of income, instead of using valuable time to recertify current participants.

We appreciate the Governor’s responsiveness to food security during this health care crisis. Montana families need the stability of SNAP during this difficult time.

To read the rest of our recommendations on SNAP, read our full report here.

Every Child Counts in the Census

The 2020 Census count has started, and a complete count of all Montanans is critical to ensuring the state receives its fair share of federal funds over the next ten years. Unfortunately, the youngest among us, children under five years old, are at the highest risk of being undercounted. In 2000, an undercount cost Montana nearly $21 million in lost funding for programs our children rely upon. Not achieving an accurate count of Montana’s children in 2020 means that Montana stands to lose $20,000 over the next ten years for each child missed by the census.

The Census count ensures that, as children get older, programs will adjust for the number of children eligible. Just think: a three-year-old Montana child that may be in preschool today, will be in seventh or eighth grade by 2030, with changing needs throughout the entire ten-year period. Some of the programs that rely on census data to distribute funding include:

  • Healthy Montana Kids, providing health insurance for children
  • Education programs, including K-12 Title I and special education funding
  • Child Care Development Block Grant, providing federal funding for child care

How can we count all kids in the census?

  • Count children in the home where they live and sleep most of the time, even if their parents don’t live there.
  • If a child’s time is divided between more than one home, count them where they stay most often. If their time is evenly divided, or you don’t know where they stay most often, count them where they are staying on Census Day—April 1, 2020.
  • Count children in your home if they don’t have a permanent place to live and are staying in your home on April 1, 2020, even if they are only staying with you temporarily.
  • If a child’s family (or guardian) is moving during March or April 2020, count them at the address where they are living on April 1, 2020.
  • Count newborn babies at the home where they will live and sleep most of the time, even if they are still in the hospital on April 1, 2020.

As Census Day approaches, all Montanans must be aware of how important this moment is to the future of our children and our communities. We cannot support the critical programs that will keep our children healthy, educated, and prepared for adulthood over the next decade without accurate census data.

For more information on the Census, check out the Montana Complete Count website.

Solid State Action on Unemployment Insurance Helps Workers Impacted by COVID-19

On March 17, we published a new report providing an overview of some of the changes the state can make to the Unemployment Insurance program to address the growing COVID-19 pandemic. We are pleased to see the Governor has acted to implement many of these adjustments to provide workers and businesses some support to mitigate the impact of the health emergency.

This handy chart provides a summary of who will now be eligible for UI coverage.

The emergency rules will eliminate the one-week waiting period for those eligible for UI benefits. The rules also expand UI coverage for workers who may be directly impacted by COVID-19. This includes workers who:

  • may have contracted COVID-19;
  • have been exposed and are subject to quarantine; or
  • are immune-compromised or advised to self-quarantine.

The new rules will also extend UI eligibility to workers who:

  • must care for a family member who is sick as a result of COVID-19.

Current UI rules also provide for partial or full benefits for workers who are laid off or are facing reduced hours.

We appreciate the Governor’s decisive action on unemployment insurance. This is an important step to helping businesses and workers through this difficult time.

Federal and State Need to Step Up to Protect Workers Impacted by Coronavirus

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread in the United States, it has highlighted the importance of paid sick days for workers and their families. To reduce the impact of coronavirus in our communities, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people stay home when they are sick. However, many workers lack that option, especially in states like Montana where workers are not guaranteed a single paid sick day.

Congress currently considering the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The bill has passed the House, and the Senate is likely to take it up later this week (perhaps with some amendments). This legislation is an important first step to provide some workers (though, unfortunately, not all) with access to earned paid sick days and paid family leave.

Those working for low wages are less likely to have access to paid sick days and more likely to be in jobs with contact with the public, like restaurant workers, early childhood educators, and home health aides. In fact, only 30 percent of the lowest paid workers nationally are able to earn paid sick days. Workers at low wage jobs are not only less likely to have paid sick days, but less likely to be able to afford to take unpaid time off from work. A low-wage worker who misses just 3.5 days without pay can equate to  the same amount a family’s spends on groceries for an entire month .

The ability to work remotely can also prevent the exposure and spread of a virus, but access to remote work is also more available to workers at higher income levels. While 35 percent of the workers with the highest income work from home on an average day, only 8 percent of those with the lowest wages do.

Montana lags behind 10 states and many local governments that have enacted paid sick day laws. We are hopeful that Congress will act soon to protect workers and help small businesses to provide paid sick days and paid family leave. And in the future, Montana should enact legislation on paid sick days, ensuring workers earn a minimum number of sick days each year, would help reduce the spread of infectious diseases, like coronavirus, and allow workers and their families to get the care they need to stay healthy.

Updates from the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee Meeting

On March 5-6, the State-Tribal Relations Committee (STRC) met in Helena to discuss a wide variety of topics.

To quickly recap the importance of STRC, the 2001 Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 10, which established the STRC to:

  1. Act as a liaison with tribal governments,
  2. Encourage state-tribal and local government-tribal cooperation,
  3. Conduct interim studies, and
  4. Report its activities, findings, recommendations, and any proposed legislation.

In August 2019, the STRC adopted its work plan for the interim and outlined how it will carry out its statutory duties and assigned study. It also identified the topics the committee, as well as the tribal governments which the committee visits over the interim, has prioritized for discussion.

Last week, the STRC’s agenda covered a lot of territory. Highlights include:

  • Barriers to voting by American Indians in Montana. HJ 10 requests the STRC to study barriers to voting for American Indians in Montana. While voters have been able to register using their tribal ID, the Secretary of State (SOS) only just recently updated its voter registration form to communicate that information. It is also notable that if registering with a tribal ID, the registrant must attach a copy of their ID. This is not required of registrants using a driver’s license or state ID card.
  • The Rural Utah Project, an organization that does nonpartisan voter registration, presented its work of using plus codes to assign addresses for free to homes in rural communities and Indian Country. Plus codes are like street addresses for people or places that do not have one. They give addresses to everyone, everywhere, allowing them to receive deliveries, access emergency services, and register to vote. Voters in Utah have used plus codes to register. As an added benefit, plus codes are free to use, are permanent, do not require special programs or licenses (e.g., Google Maps builds in this feature), and do not require cell service or Wi-Fi. The STRC requested information about how the SOS might incorporate plus codes into Montana’s voter registration database.
  • Require the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to create and maintain electronic directory photograph repository. SB 40 requires OPI to create and maintain an electronic directory of individual students, complete with student photographs. Photographs may be used only to support law enforcement authorities with missing children cases. If a child is reported missing and is included in the photograph repository, law enforcement authorities must include the photograph in the missing child report. Parents or guardians will be the given the option each year to choose to include a child in the repository. The Department of Justice will have continuous access to the repository. SB 40 came before the Legislature at the request of the STRC. OPI is using $30,000 of its $45,000 for implementation. OPI will use the remaining $15,000 for maintenance across the next three years.
  • Missing persons legislation implementation. SB 312 created the Looping in Native Communities (LINC) network grant program to create a network that supports tribal efforts to identify, report, and find missing American Indian people in Montana. SB 312 also created the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force to administer the grant program. The task force awarded the $25,000 grant to Blackfeet Community College as matching funds for the tribal college to implement LINC.
  • Maintenance of highways within reservation boundaries. In 2019, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy sponsored HB 426, which would have required certain public agencies responsible for roads or highways wholly or partially within a reservation to enter into or attempt to enter into an agreement regarding snow removal and other winter maintenance with the tribal government located on the reservation. It also would have allowed tribal governments to receive funds for highway maintenance. Even though this legislation did not pass, the STRC adopted the issue as part of its work plan. The committee received an overview of federal funding for and state, county, and local maintenance of roads within reservation boundaries and requested more information for future meetings.
  • Improving communication between tribal nations and the state in Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases. American Indian children in Montana are overrepresented in the foster care system. As of February 4, 2020, there are 676 ICWA cases in Montana. Under current Montana law, from the point of child removal from the home, families may wait as long as 20 days before they appear before a judge. Nearby states have significantly shorter turnarounds. North Dakota is the next longest wait time of only four days. Two Yellowstone County District Court judges are piloting a project to expedite the time a family waits for a hearing from 20 days to three to five days. The STRC asked to receive an update on the pilot in August to determine whether the statutory timeline could be shortened.

MBPC’s team will continue to attend meetings, track STRC activity, and provide updates. It is our hope that the STRC take the information it continues to gather this interim to inform proposed legislation that works for Indian Country for the 2021 session.

Here’s What to Expect Next Week During a Busy Legislative Interim Committee Week

*Update. Due to COVID-19 all interim committee meetings have been cancelled.

It’s a busy week next week for Montana legislative interim committees. A number of the topics that policymakers will consider next week are issues Montana families are grappling with in their communities – from access to early childhood education to affordable housing. We hope these discussions will result in concrete state policies in 2021 to help move Montana on a better course for families and workers. And how do we ensure that the state has the revenue it needs to make these new investments? Policymakers will be discussing that as well!

Here’s a quick summary of what we can expect next week.

Local Government Interim Committee – March 17 – 18

On the docket:

  • Affordable housing
  • Regional fire authority
  • Subdivision development
  • Water/wastewater funding

The Local Government Interim Committee (LGIC) will hear from several experts from the housing sector on growing demands for affordable housing. This work builds upon the successful efforts in 2019 to consider legislation to invest in affordable housing. MBPC has long called on state policymakers to consider an investment in affordable housing, and we are pleased to see legislators will spend the interim discussing some potential solutions.

Revenue Interim Committee – March 19 – 20

On the docket:

  • Property taxes
  • Individual income tax
  • Corporate income tax
  • Updated revenue estimate
  • Energy/conservation tax credits

The Revenue Interim Committee (RIC) will kick things off on Thursday, March 19th, with the committee formed to study Montana’s tax code. The agenda includes discussions on property taxes and individual and corporate income taxes in Montana. Check out MBPC’s recently updated Property Tax Policy Basics. MBPC’s staff will also highlight that income tax cuts enacted in 2003 largely benefited the wealthiest households, while producing little impact for everyday Montanans. The tax study committee has a number of clear policies that can ensure adequate levels of revenue without shifting increased tax liability on families living on low and moderate incomes.

On March 20, RIC will hear from its staff on updated revenue estimates for the current fiscal year and what we might expect for the coming year. The committee will also review several tax credits, aimed at incentivizing alternative energy.

Legislative Finance Education Subcommittee / Education Interim Committee – March 18 – 20

On the docket:

  • Community college funding
  • Special education funding
  • School assessments
  • School nutrition
  • Student mental health services
  • Pre-K funding

A subcommittee of the Legislative Finance Committee will meet to continue discussions on funding for community colleges and K-12 special education. The committee will likely provide direction on reforms to the funding formula for community colleges. The committee has also been considering legislation to finally place the adjustment for special education costs into the base funding formula.

Following that, the regular Education Interim Committee will tackle a number of bigger issues, including school nutrition, access to mental health services for students, and pre-K/early childhood education. On March 19, the committee will hear from a panel on the school breakfast program called Breakfast after the Bell program. On November 20, school counselors will present on issues related to access mental health services. The Committee will also hold a work session to look at models for investing in public pre-K programs.

Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee – March 19 – 20

On the docket:

  • Senior & Long-Term Care
  • Child Protective Services

The Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee (CFHHS) will continue its work on two major studies: HJR 50, to study Senior & Long-Term Care services; and HJR 48/49, studying child protective services. The first study will include a panel of advocates focused on services for seniors and an overview of funding trends for SLTC division.

On the second day, the Committee will hear from the Department of Public Health & Human Services on its work to implement the federal Family First Prevention Act and preventative services to support families intersecting with child and family services.

Everyone in Montana should be able to afford basic necessities, like safe and stable housing, safe and reliable child care, and food for their children – no exceptions. To move Montana forward and make it a state where we can all live, work, and enjoy all that Big Sky Country has to offer, we must put people first. We must invest in good jobs for a modern economy, affordable health care, quality education, and a safe environment so Montana families are stable and our communities are strong.

Alphabet Soup: Acronyms You Should Know

Do you ever get confused about all of the acronyms MBPC (aka the Montana Budget & Policy Center) uses? To help clear things up, we put our 50 most common acronyms in one place.

ABAWD             Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents

ACA                    Affordable Care Act

ACS                     American Community Survey

ANB                    Average Number Belonging

ARM                   Administrative Rules of Montana

BBA                    Balance Budget Amendment

BIA                     Bureau of Indian Affairs

BRFSS                Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System

CBO                    Congressional Budget Office

CFS                     Child and Family Services

CHAP                 Community Health Aide Program

COPP                  Commissioner of Public Practices

CTC                     Child Tax Credit

DOC                    Department of Corrections

DOJ                     Department of Justice

DOR                    Department of Revenue

DPHHS               Department of Public Health and Human Services

EBT                      Electronic Benefits Transfer

EITC                    Earned Income Tax Credit

EPP                      Executive Planning Process

FDPIR                 Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

FMLA                  Family Medical Leave Act

FTE                      Full-Time Equivalent

FY                         Fiscal Year

HMK                    Healthy Montana Kids

HUD                    Housing and Urban Development

ICWA                   Indian Child Welfare Act

IHS                       Indian Health Service

IRS                        Internal Revenue Service

LFD                       Legislative Fiscal Division

LIEAP                   Low Income Energy Assistance Program

LIHTC                   Low Income Housing Tax Credit

LOST                     Local Option Sales Tax

MUS                      Montana University System

OBPP                     Office of Budget and Program Planning

OPA                       Office of Public Assistance

OPI                        Office of Public Instruction

OTO                       One-Time-Only

RFP                        Request for Proposal

RIC                         Revenue Interim Committee

RMTLC                  Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council

SALT                      State and Local Tax Deduction

SCOTUS                Supreme Court of the United States

SNAP                     Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

SSA/SSI/SSDI     Social Security Administration/Social Security Insurance/Social Security Disability Insurance

TABOR                  Tax Payers Bill of Rights

TANF                     Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

TIF                         Tax Increment Financing

UI                           Unemployment Insurance

WIC                       Women Infant and Children