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Rush hour traffic has returned and downtown bars are noisy, crowded and noisy again. But mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic also means economic safety nets are disappearing – and Texans struggling to make ends meet may soon fall even further into a financial hole this summer.
Federal unemployment benefits end Saturday for Texans. Their electricity can be cut for non-payment from Tuesday. For tenants, evictions will normally resume at the end of July.
“We’re going to see disparities in the coming months as social safety nets are taken down, and people are going to have to figure all of these things out for themselves,” said Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank. from Dallas.
“This is a great transition to a new normal, and some families are going to be in more of a rush than others,” Orrenius said. “Everything will strike at once. “
An order from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had stopped evictions of tenants meeting certain criteria, but it expires at the end of July after this week’s one-month extension – which the agency says will be the last.
A moratorium on disconnecting electricity was put in place by state regulators in February due to the winter storm that cut power to millions of Texans for days, but the Utilities Commission recently lifted it; companies must now give defaulting customers 10 days’ notice before cutting off their electricity.
And a federal unemployment benefit program that provided relief for indentured workers and the odd-job economy, as well as a $ 300-per-week supplement to people receiving state unemployment benefits, will end. Saturday. Governor Greg Abbott withdrew Texas from federal aid early, although it could have been extended until September. Hundreds of thousands of Texans are currently benefiting from it.
Nakita Saddler, 35, was among the millions who lost their jobs last year. Previously a restaurant waitress in Odessa, she has not been able to find a full-time job since. And as a mother still caring for three of her four children, unemployment benefits of around $ 900 twice a month are usually enough to pay the rent, but not much else, he said. she declared. She’s about $ 3,500 behind on the utility bill.
“I’m worried [about disconnection] because I paid, little by little, but with the interest and the bills of the house… it’s hard, ”she says. But, she added, “sometimes God makes it happen. “
The end of the pandemic will be uneven
With nearly 40% of Fully vaccinated Texans and with businesses reopening or reverting to in-person services, economic circumstances for many have improved: Texas’ unemployment rate was 6.5% in May, well below the 11.6% last May when some businesses began reopening after a month-long shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Yet nearly three years of jobs created in Texas were destroyed during the recession; the state’s economy has more than 400,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic, according to seasonally adjusted state data. The pain is not distributed evenly.
White-collar workers could work from home and largely avoided job cuts, while workers in restaurants, bars, hotels and businesses related to recreation, transportation and personal care saw their jobs evaporate – and many remain financially underwater or unemployed.
For example, the Texas accommodation and food industry, which includes staff in hotels and restaurants, employed about 1.1 million people in May. Before the pandemic, the last time employment in the sector was this low was in March 2016.
And, even though accommodation and food services businesses have created 362,000 net jobs since May 2020, the industry remains down 118,000 jobs since the start of business closures linked to the pandemic, according to state employment data.
Meanwhile, Texas’ financial industry employed 825,800 people in May – 7,600 more than in February 2020, just before the start of pandemic shutdowns, and a record high for the industry.
The growing disparity between wage earners and the unemployed as the pandemic eases has worsened long-standing inequalities between racial groups. People of color are disproportionately employed in the service industries hardest hit by the pandemic, according to an analysis by Dallas Federal Reserve Bank employment data, and the unemployment rates reflect this: In February, 12.3% of black workers in Texas were unemployed, compared to 9.3% of Hispanic workers and just 5.1% of white workers. In February 2020, the unemployment rates for each group were 4.7%, 4.7% and 2.5% respectively.
Losing the extra $ 300 in benefits is likely to change people’s habits, said Orrenius, the Dallas Fed economist. Higher unemployment benefits likely prevented an even steeper drop in consumer spending by providing cash to families who needed it when jobs were scarce. Now, the consumer spending of low-income households can disappear with this extra money.
She pointed out that many women – especially women of color – were forced to quit their jobs during the pandemic to care for children; now they will have to find a daycare to get a job.
Immigrant communities have also been hit hard by COVID-19 and tend to lack health insurance at higher rates; these families are struggling with medical debts (many were also initially ineligible for stimulus checks and federal unemployment benefits if they lived in a mixed-status family). Unvaccinated people are at risk of catching new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 that continue to spread.
“There’s a strong job market for people, but then there are these other complications that haven’t completely gone away,” Orrenius said. “If you think you see a disparity now, we’ll see [more]. “
Help still available
There are still programs in place that Texans who are struggling to pay their bills can turn to for help. The Texas Rental Relief Fund was launched in February and has provided assistance with rent and utility bills to more than 61,000 households. About $ 14.8 million was spent on utility bills alone, according to data from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
If you receive a notice of disconnection from the public service, the Public Services Commission recommends that you:
Request a deferred payment plan from the utility company. Texas rules require deferred payment plans to be available and last for at least five billing cycles.
To be eligible for Rent Assistance Fund assistance, the household must have an income less than or equal to 80% of the region’s median income and have a monthly rent below the program limit of $ 4,600. For example, a family of four in Harris County qualifies if their household earns $ 63,350 or less and pays less than $ 4,600 in monthly rent.
However, the billion-dollar program has been plagued by problems, KERA reported, and aid dispersal can be slow. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs told the Tribune that the process has improved since its inception, but that often incomplete applications take time to process.
Slowdowns in the fund mean people like Saddler, Odessa’s mother, assume aid will be too little, too late. She said her power company told her to ask for help from the fund, which she did on May 31. Almost a month later, she still hasn’t heard back.
At the same time, she is set to see her unemployment benefits drop by around 30% next week.
“That’s when it’s going to start to get real,” Saddler said. “It’s already real, but it’s going to get more difficult.”