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$600 a week for laid-off Idahoans is finally here. Some will get more than jobs paid

At an April 23 press conference, Gov. Brad Little was asked steps to help Idaho unemployed get benefits. | BY KATHERINE JONES
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – The $600-per-week supplemental payments for workers made jobless by coronavirus lockdowns will finally begin to flow into Idahoans’ pockets. That means some people will collect more on unemployment than they earned while working.
The Idaho Department of Labor said Friday that it started making payments Thursday under a temporary program Congress approved five weeks ago as part of the coronavirus relief law. The money should show up in furloughed and laid-off workers’ bank accounts or debit cards on Tuesday.
The late-April timing matches when department officials had said the money would be released, although CNN reported Thursday that Idaho was one of only six states that had not yet started distributing it. Idaho, like many other states, was not set up to process the supplemental payments and had to reprogram its systems to handle them.
The funds offer a lifeline to many of the 1 in 7 members of Idaho’s workforce now without employment income. The money will help pay for groceries, rent and other bills until they return to their old jobs or find new ones. It will also benefit landlords, lenders, stores and other businesses that rely upon those workers’ incomes.
The money is layered on top of Idaho’s regular state unemployment benefits, which range from $72 (for minimum-wage workers) to $448 per week and typically pay about $300.
Combined federal and state payments mean some jobless workers temporarily will earn more in unemployment compensation than their jobs paid. That’s especially true for low-wage workers in a state like Idaho, whose pay rates overall are below average.
A 40-hour workweek at $7.25 an hour, the Idaho minimum wage, earns $290. Those workers will now collect $672 during their layoffs, not the state’s usual $72. A worker who collected $300 in unemployment compensation will now get $900, and one who collected $448 will now get $1,048.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the combined payments will average more than 120% of Idaho’s average wage, the third-highest percentage in the nation, after Maine and New Mexico.
(Idaho’s average weekly wage was $828 in the first quarter of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average in Ada County: $967. The national average: $1,184.)
Some Idahoans still working may resent that they will now be making less than their laid-off colleagues and that the payments seem to provide an incentive not to work. With the pandemic crisis creating emergency shutdowns across the country, Congress chose a one-amount-fits-all approach for simplicity and speed. When employers reopen and rehire furloughed workers, those workers will not be eligible to keep collecting unemployment assistance.
“Most all of them are expecting to return to their employers, and most employers are expecting to claim them,” said Leah Reeder, an unemployment services technical services specialist for the Labor Department, by phone April 16.
More than 100,000 Idaho workers have been furloughed or laid off since mid-March as dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms and other “nonessential” businesses closed, travel and hotel patronage collapsed, and retail and other sales plummeted.
A few workers have been rehired already since closed stores won permission on April 15 to reopen if they do not let customers inside. Gov. Brad Little on Thursday announced a schedule to reopen other businesses and restore public gatherings in four stages in May and June as long as progress in COVID-19 testing, infection and death rates continues.
The $600 benefit is retroactive to March 29 and will end on July 25.
“Claimants do not need to do anything extra to receive the $600 weekly, but they should continue to file weekly claims,” the department said in a news release. “Claimants with pending issues preventing payment will not receive the additional funds until the issues are resolved and they are allowed benefits.”
Not all of the 109,000 Idahoans who have filed for unemployment since large-scale layoffs began in mid-March will receive the $600 payments because not all will qualify, department spokeswoman Georgia Smith said in an email.
Self-employed people, including contract and gig-economy workers, do not qualify. State officials are still working on readying special payments to those workers under a separate provision of the coronavirus relief act.
Taxpayers must pay for all the federal payments eventually. The cost, for now, is being financed by an expansion of the nation’s already ballooning national debt.
The funds are authorized by the coronavirus relief bill Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed on March 25. The bill’s estimated cost then was $2.2 trillion, although the Congressional Budget Office has since revised that downward to $1.76 trillion.
The Idaho payments flowing now will total $63 million, the Department of Labor said.

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