Confusion, concern follows Trump COVID relief orders

State officials say more guidance needed on $400-per-week unemployment boost

President Donald Trump delivers his third State of the Union to the nation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Before issuing a series of executive actions relating to coronavirus relief at his New Jersey golf club on Aug. 8, President Donald Trump suggested to reporters that the move “will take care of pretty much this entire situation.” But Colorado officials have quickly joined their counterparts in other states in panning Trump’s orders, which they say offer little help to those most in need, and place unmanageable burdens on state governments already struggling to provide aid.

Following a breakdown in talks last week between congressional negotiators over a new round of relief legislation, Trump — blaming Democrats’ “extreme partisan demands” for the lack of an agreement — signed four executive actions aimed at bypassing Congress entirely. The actions include a deferral of payroll taxes for the remainder of 2020, a memorandum directing federal officials to “consider” measures that would halt evictions, and the authorization of a new $400-per-week unemployment payment to replace the $600 weekly benefit that expired last month.

But the actual effect of the new measures is far from certain, and officials in states across the country, including Colorado, are casting doubt on whether Trump’s proposed unemployment payment is feasible. At best, Trump’s actions are a stopgap solution, officials said Monday.

“While we wait for Congress to strike an agreement, the president’s actions, as long as they are found to be valid, can hold us over a little while longer,” Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis, said. “We are analyzing the impact of the president’s orders and continue to urge Congress to take real action to help hardworking Coloradans, provide real tax relief, and help small businesses and individuals impacted by this pandemic.”

The expiration of the $600 weekly benefit, known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, has left millions of Americans facing further financial hardship and ratcheted up pressure on Congress to approve a new aid package. But Trump’s order differs significantly from the FPUC benefit created by Congress in March; it authorizes states to provide $400 weekly payments to unemployed workers and asks the states to pay 25% of the cost.

Paying out an extra $100 per week to millions of claimants is a tall order for many cash-strapped state governments. In a statement, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said that it was “still awaiting technical guidance” from the Trump administration on how the program might be implemented.

“Until more information is provided regarding financing and state options regarding the $100 state contribution, we are unable to comment on the viability of implementation of this assistance program within the state of Colorado,” the agency said.

While speaking at the opening of a new COVID-19 testing site in Adams County, Polis told reporters that the state could likely only afford to pay its share of the $400 benefit for two or three weeks.

“Even that is really stretching our resources to the max,” Polis said, echoing similar comments from fellow state executives like Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

Eviction crisis looms

Trump’s move to partially extend unemployment benefits and suspend payroll taxes also drew criticism from Democrats, and even some Republicans, who questioned whether he has the authority to take such action unilaterally. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, called the orders “unconstitutional slop.”

Before signing the order, Trump promised to go even further if elected to a second term, floating the idea of cutting the payroll tax permanently — causing Democrats to worry about the long-term consequences for Social Security and Medicare, which are funded in large part through payroll taxes.

Meanwhile, a third order will have little to no effect at all, critics say. Trump’s “Executive Order on Fighting the Spread of COVID-19 by Providing Assistance to Renters and Homeowners” contains only a few short provisions directing various federal agency heads to “review” and “identify” potential actions that their departments could take to slow evictions.

“The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of CDC shall consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19,” one section of the order states.

With Trump’s headline-grabbing announcements giving way to uncertainty and pushback from state officials, some advocates for greater relief worry that the confusion created by the orders has done more harm than good.

“We have been having conversations with tenants and clients this weekend having to clarify that there are no additional protections from eviction, despite what the president of the United States said,” Sam Gilman, co-founder of the Denver-based COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, told Newsline in an interview. “Essentially, it’s business as usual for tenants and the eviction process.”

In a report released last week, researchers with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and the Aspen Institute estimated that 29 million renters across the country are at risk of eviction in the coming months, including as many as one-third of renters in Colorado.

“When the extra $600 was getting into the pockets of Colorado renters, they were able to hang on,” Gilman said. “Now, as those federal benefits have (expired), state benefits cover 60% of lost income up to a cap, and for many renters that’s not enough. That’s not enough to stay housed.”

“What we need is sustained federal investment in rent relief and a federal eviction moratorium,” he added. “Ultimately evictions are cash crises, and renters don’t have the money to pay their rent.”

‘Return to the negotiating table’

Talks over a new relief package have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion bill that Democrats attacked as “woefully inadequate“; the bill, known as the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act, would not establish an eviction moratorium and proposes to slash FPUC payments to $200 per week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, suggested last week that 15 to 20 members of his caucus will not back any relief measure at all, according to the New York Times.

A spokesperson for Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner did not respond to a request for comment. But in a statement issued to the Denver Post, Gardner’s office said that the senator supports Trump’s actions, but believes additional action by Congress is needed.

“Sen. Gardner will continue to fight for three priorities in a bipartisan, bicameral deal: Making sure that we’re stopping the spread and flattening the curve, helping Coloradans with the immediate relief that they need to get through this crisis, and getting businesses up and running again,” the statement said.

In May, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed legislation that would extend the $600 weekly payment, impose a federal eviction moratorium, and more, but the legislation was not taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder, called the president’s executive actions “weak” and renewed his calls for congressional Republicans to support a relief package similar to the one House Democrats approved in May.

“The President’s executive orders fail to meet this moment, placing undue burdens on states to extend needed unemployment benefits, and threatening the viability of Social Security in order to provide an inefficient and lackluster fix to the economic crisis,” Neguse said in a statement. “Senate Republicans must return to the negotiating table, so Congress can provide the American people the full relief they need.”