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Extension hosts webinar on COVID-19 legislation


Montana State University Extension and North Dakota State University Extension hosted a free webinar Wednesday, an extra episode of their “Solid Finances” series, about recent legislation passed by congress to help those put under financial pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joel Schumacher, an economics associate specialist at MSU Extension said the situation with the pandemic is still evolving and the CARES Act and recent stimulus bill will likely not be the last of the programs congress passes to provide economic relief.

“Information is changing daily,” he said. “My guess is there might be some additional pieces of legislation as well, major or minor… we might see some housekeeping legislation along the way.”

He said the presentation was an attempt to compile the most relevant changes Congress has made, and who those changes affect.

According to a poll conducted during the webinar, more than 50 percent of the people tuning in were first time viewers of Solid Finances.

Tax deadlines and sick leave

Schumacher said the IRS has pushed back the tax filing deadline to July 15 in the wake of the pandemic, although people can still file their taxes now if they want. In Montana, the state income tax filing deadline has been pushed back to July 15 as well.

He discussed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the effects that will have on the employees of small businesses, which applies to those with lower than 500 employees.

“The Family’s First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed almost two weeks ago on March 18, but it’s effective today, now the interesting thing about that effective date being today is that many of the provisions of things that may have been helpful for people in the last two weeks, they weren’t eligible for that,” he said.

Schumacher said this act has introduced two new forms of paid sick leave; Emergency Paid Sick Leave — EPSL — and Emergency Medical Family Leave — EMFL. He said people should check with their employers to find out whether these are available at their workplace since some exemptions exist.

EPSL can be used by people who have been quarantined, people who have been advised by a medical professional to self-isolate or are receiving treatment for COVID-19 symptoms. It also applies to people caring for someone meeting these criteria.

Schumacher said the act is worded with flexibility in mind due to the nature of the pandemic.

“There is some discretion being given to the agencies that are imposing this,” he said.

This leave gives full-time employees who meet the criteria up to 80 hours of paid sick leave. He said employers are not legally allowed to make their employees use previously earned sick days or vacation time in place of this leave.

Though, if someone was sick last week, they would not be able to use this leave for time already spent away from work.

Part-time employees will have their 80 hours reduced in proportion to their weekly work hours. For example, someone working 20 hours a week will receive a total of 40 hours of sick leave.

Schumacher said employers can pay sick employees fully, up to a maximum of $511 a day. However, people who are not themselves sick but caring for someone who is can receive two-thirds of their normal pay, up to $200 a day.

He said the second type of sick leave, EMFL, will not kick in until 10 days into a person’s sick leave or until EPSL has run out. This type of leave would allow employers to pay caregivers of sick people up to two-thirds of their pay, up to $200 a day, or $10,000 total, for 12 weeks.

Schumacher said this leave has some extra stipulations, namely businesses with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from providing this leave if paying it will financially jeopardize the business.

“They may use this exemption to allow the business to survive by not providing that type of leave,” he said.

Unlike EPSL, under EMFL the employee must have worked for their employer for at least 30 days and be unable to telework in any significant capacity.

He added that these changes are being looked at by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, and they are trying to explain it all to people as clearly as possible.

“I’m sure the Department of Labor and other agencies, are really scrambling to get a clear message out to employers and employees,” Schumacher said.

Actions of the CARES Act

He said the CARES Act, a 900-page, $.2.2 trillion bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump Friday, is very complex.

“There’s a lot of digging that will need to be done by a lot of different policy folks,” he said.

Schumacher said the act will allow any legal adult with a work-eligible Social Security number who is not being claimed as a dependent to receive $1,200 from the federal government as economic stimulus.

He said people who make less than $75,000 a year will be eligible for the full amount, but that $1,200 will go down by $5 for every $100 above $75,000 that the person makes. People with dependents will also receive an extra $500 per dependent under the age of 18.

“This rebate is going to be based on the most recent income data the IRS has for you,” he said.

Schumacher said the IRS will use people’s 2019 tax filing to determine their yearly income if it is available, if not they will default to their 2018 taxes.

He said people who haven’t made enough money to file taxes previously can file a simple return now and will be able to receive the rebate.

He said this money will be delivered either directly to people’s bank accounts, or by paper check, though he was not 100 percent sure about how long it would take.

“My understanding and best estimates are about three weeks,” Schumacher said.

He added that the act also allows states to make changes to how they handle unemployment benefits, including waiving the one-week delay between being laid-off and receiving benefits.

It also created the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Fund which boost unemployment benefits by up to $600 per week and extends said benefits by 13 weeks. It also allows some people who have had significantly reduced hours to apply for some unemployment benefits.

He said people with questions should contact the Department of Labor.

The audience was asked to participate in a poll to see how many had been unemployed in the wake of the pandemic. Of the audience members, five percent said they had been laid-off, and another five percent said they’d had their hours significantly reduced.

Schumacher said the number of people filing for unemployment in the wake of COVID-19 is higher than the worst week during the great recession.

“We’re just off the charts, record-breaking territory in terms of how many people are claimed unemployment,” he said. “This is a very different situation than 10 years ago, (COVID-19) was a muchmore sudden event so we’ll see what the numbers will look like, but certainly these numbers are extraordinarily large.”

Impact on students

Carrie Johnson of North Dakota State University Extension talked about some of the effect Congress’s recent efforts have had on students.

“With the CARES Act, it’s going to allow colleges and universities to transfer left-over federal work study funds into a grant program, so that money may be awarded to students as grants,” she said, “… They’re still trying to find ways to address getting students money if their employment has been effected by this pandemic.”

She said students who have had to withdraw from classes due to the pandemic would be exempted from having to pay back unused federal financial aid for the time they spend away from school.

Johnson said there was also room for schools to be more flexible about the students that can receive federal finical aid.

“Because of the pandemic they’re going to be looking at this a little differently, it’s going to allow schools to exclude that minimum (2.0) GPA from satisfactory academic progress, as well as attempted credits vs completed credits,” she said.

She said there have also been some changes to federal student loans as well.

“The CARES Act does suspend payment on federal student loans that are held by the department of education,” she said, “… This pause will go through Sept. 30, 2020.”

Johnson said people who are still able to make payments should, since the interest rates have been set to zero percent, which allows people to put extra money into the principal of the loan, which she said is a the more savvy move in the long run.

She said people making payments towards federal student loan forgiveness would not have to make payments during this pause at all. Involuntary collections on student loans have also been suspended.

Johnson said people with questions about this should reach out to their local MSU county extension agents.

“No matter what state you’re in, your extension service will probably have some information for you,” she said.

Scams popping up

Schumacher also talked about the recent crop of scams that have arrived in the wake of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, there has been a big financial upheaval, this has also been an opportunity for scammers to pop up,” he said.

He said people should not believe anyone online attempting to sell a “cure” for COVID-19 since no such cure exists.

Schumacher also said there has been a recent uptick in fake charities capitalizing on those who want to donate money to help victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are plenty of great charities out there, make sure you’re not giving your money to one that’s a scam,” he said.

He advised that people make extra sure to verify the legitimacy of the charities they’re donating to.

Schumacher also said a rise in “person in need” scams have occurred. Scammers calling older people pretending to be a child or grandchild who can’t pay for a coronavirus test to get money out of them.

The presentation went on for longer than intended and neither presenter was able to answer all the questions the audience had, though, Johnson said, they would look at all the questions in the que and would create an FAQ on their websites.

More webinars offered

Extension announced Wednesday afternoon it will offer several more webinars that discuss economic effects from the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The webinars will be offered from 2 to 3 p.m. each Thursday from today, April 2, through April 23. The courses will be presented by MSU Extension specialists and economists from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research to provide insight to how the coronavirus is currently impacting the economy in their areas of expertise. The webinars are free and open to the public.

Topics that will be covered in week one include “Assessing the Impacts of Coronavirus in Montana, the U.S. and the World” presented by Pat Barkey from the BBER; “Small Business, Coronavirus Stimulus” by George Haynes from MSU Extension; and “Individuals and the Stimulus” by Joel Schumacher, associate specialist with MSU Extension.

Week two will feature presentations that cover travel and recreation, agriculture and health care by Norma Nickerson from the ITRR, Kate Fuller of MSU Extension and Robert Sonora from the BBER. Topics for weeks three and four are to be determined.

To register and participate in the webinars, visit http://farmpolicy.msuextension.org/covid19 .

For more information, contact Joel Schumacher at [email protected]  


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