Stephen Hall spent his first federal stimulus check on a new tool shed and a fence. He has remained employed throughout the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as a law enforcement officer in Columbus, considered an “essential worker,” he said.
Jessica Hill’s situation was completely different. She was furloughed from her job as a supervisor at Yokohama Tire Corporation in West Point for about six weeks and had to dip into her savings to make ends meet, she said.
When she received the $1,200 stimulus check, she chose to add it to those savings instead of spending it right away.
“I’m afraid of how long this is going to happen, so I’m just holding onto those funds,” said Hill, who lives in Starkville. “I’m a single parent with a daughter. Kids don’t know the extent of the pandemic other than not being able to see friends or go to school. They look up and expect you to provide (for them). I need to be able to lay the groundwork of something for us to lean back on.”
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March, gave money directly to most American adults and families: $1,200 for single adults, $2,400 for married couples and an additional $500 for each child under 17.
Congress is currently discussing another COVID-19 relief package but has not agreed on an amount for a potential second round of stimulus payments.
If another check comes, Hill said she will put it into savings like she did with the first one. Hall said he will use half his check for bills and save the other half.
The CARES Act also expanded unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. It provided $600 per week in addition to the amount each state already provides per week, which is $235 in Mississippi, and extended the extra benefits through Dec. 31.
The relief bill also established the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program with the goal of helping small businesses continue to pay their employees. Applications closed in August.
Barbara Bigelow, executive director of Main Street Columbus, said she doesn’t know how many local businesses received federal aid, but she knows of businesses that used their PPP funds, as well as other aid money, on payroll, utilities, mortgages or adjustments that allowed employees to work from home.
“From the Main Street standpoint, I am thrilled (the government is) doing another package like this because our small businesses have had significant losses this year, as everyone knows,” Bigelow said. “Any help that they can receive, any support that they can receive is welcomed by each of them, I’m certain.”
Hill also welcomed the financial support when she was reeling from being laid off.
“For me, it was a huge shock,” she said. “I think everybody was shocked by what was going on in the world. You would look and see things on the news that were happening everywhere else, but (it’s different) for it to happen to you locally, and it’s not just affecting your work. It’s affecting your city and state.”
Hall said he was not opposed to receiving $1,200 from the government, but it was not an absolute necessity for him.
“There should have been a different system to help determine the need for this money,” Hall said. “It’s only adding to the national debt and must be paid back.”
Some people who receive unemployment support have ended up making more money than they did when they were working full-time, Hall said, and also make more money that way than he makes at his full-time, “essential” job.
“The biggest thing I have seen is the lack of someone wanting to go back to work because they were making more money doing nothing during the time of unemployment expansion,” Hall said. “Sure, that money would not be a lot for people with high cost of living such as California, but I think it gave people with a low cost of living and lower local salaries an incentive to not want to work.”
However, families nationwide are in genuine need, Hill said, and she believes the federal government should be mindful of both how long the pandemic has lasted and how long it has taken Congress to make another relief bill possible. The relief package that passed Congress on Monday included $600 stimulus checks, but Trump said he would not sign the bill if the stimulus checks were below $2,000.
Democrats in the House of Representatives tried to increase the amount to $2,000, but House Republicans blocked the proposal on Thursday.
“(Congress) needs to think about not only the amount they’re giving, but also how long it’s taking and the gap it needs to cover,” Hill said. “They can say they’re going to place it on hold because they disagree … but we’re in a state of emergency.”
Help for local businesses
Gary Turner owns a strip mall on West Main Street in West Point, across the street from Spiller Furniture and Mattress.
Thanks to the CARES Act, Turner was able to waive late fees and defer rent on some tenants in the strip mall that closed due to the pandemic, he said.
Turner applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, a separate program from PPP that’s designed to provide relief to businesses experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration website.
Several of Turner’s employees are independent contractors instead of on payroll, he said, so EIDL was a more feasible option than PPP for him. He received a 30-year fixed loan and said the payments are “minimal” and manageable.
“I was able to maintain my current part-time employees, use (the money) as payroll and for upgrades and things of that nature,” Turner said.
In Columbus, Main Street made sure businesses were aware of the federal assistance programs and helped them find more information, send applications and meet deadlines, Bigelow said.
Banks were primarily responsible for helping businesses apply for and receive PPP loans. Renasant Bank “helped more than 11,000 businesses with more than $1.3 billion in PPP funding requests” in five states, including Mississippi, Director of Marketing John Oxford said.
Gail Stevens, who owns Park Place Boutique in Columbus, said the PPP loan she received earlier this year helped her support her employees, as it was designed to do. But there was one problem with the program’s structure that she hopes the next relief bill will address and fix.
“They based what you could get on the previous year’s number of employees and payroll, and we had grown,” Stevens said. “In 2020, I had more employees and a larger payroll, but (the PPP program) based what they gave me on 2019, so … I couldn’t cover as much of the payroll as I actually had.”
She said she hopes the next round of PPP funds will be based on businesses’ 2020 payroll and employees so it will be of more help to them financially.
Turner said the $1,200 direct payments definitely helped keep the tenants at his strip mall afloat, based on his conversations with them. He described most of those businesses as “service-based retail” such as a day care center and a consignment store.
“When that money hit, the $1,200 per person, it was pretty obvious that you could see an uptick in sales,” Turner said.
Though sales at Park Place Boutique took a hit throughout the year, the Christmas shopping season was a boon for business, Stevens said.
“It seems more people are wanting to shop local,” she said. “They understand that local (businesses) got hurt badly, so they’re making up for that.”
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.