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Business/Economy

Where Alaskans can find economic help during the coronavirus crisis

Downtown Anchorage on March 25, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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A host of new and expanded programs have been created to help Alaskans struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most will stem from the $2 trillion rescue bill approved by Congress last week, but state, local and other groups are also offering resources.

Here are some of the ways to get help.

If you’re a small business owner and you need money fast

The Small Business Administration is immediately offering grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses under its emergency disaster loan program, a benefit triggered by the stimulus bill, said Kevin Wynne, a spokesman with the agency.

The agency refers to the money as a “loan advance” that will not have to be repaid, according to its web page.

The advances fall under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, offering low-interest loans of up to $2 million for impacts from the virus. Alaskans used the program after the November 2018 earthquake.

All businesses that are interested in the advance and disaster loan — including the self-employed, independent contractors and gig economy workers — should apply as soon as possible, Wynne said. The advances should be available in three days.

Apply online, he recommended. “The key thing is get in there quickly, hundreds of thousands of businesses are applying,” he said.

If you’re a small business owner and you need a bigger loan

The Small Business Administration is also offering a larger emergency loan up to $10 million, portions of which can also be forgiven. Officials said on Tuesday they are not yet sure if businesses will be able to receive both the $10,000 cash advance associated with the disaster loan, as well as this larger loan.

These large loans fall under the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program created in last week’s stimulus bill. The loans are available to small businesses and tribal businesses, veterans groups and eligible nonprofits.

“Treasury and the Small Business Administration expect to have this program up and running by April 3rd so that businesses can go to a participating SBA 7(a) lender, bank, or credit union, apply for a loan, and be approved on the same day," Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday. "The loans will be forgiven as long as the funds are used to keep employees on the payroll and for certain other expenses.”

Other forgivable expenses, for a period of up to eight weeks, include rent, mortgage interest payments and utilities.

Loan payments in this program don’t kick in for six months. The program will be retroactive to Feb. 15, 2020, so employers can rehire laid-off employees. It ends June 30.

Self-employed individuals and independent contractors are eligible.

It’s not yet certain whether the large loan and the grant under the traditional disaster loan will both be available, said Jeremy Field, SBA regional administrator, in a statement on Tuesday. The details are not yet available on how the paycheck program will be implemented.

“With the details on the program forthcoming later this week, we’re recommending businesses interested in (the paycheck protection program) to keep their powder dry and see which program – whether it’s (the paycheck protection program) or Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advance – is the best fit for their business,” Field said. "Our job at the SBA is to execute and educate. We want to make sure we implement a smooth and clear process and educate small businesses on all their options and which will be the best for them.”

Also, a new Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority program allows Alaska businesses with lines of credit through an Alaska lending institution to apply for a loan increase of up to $1 million.

If you’ve lost your job

The stimulus bill dramatically expands the state’s unemployment benefits program, adding $600 in weekly payments for up to four months. It extends state programs by 13 weeks. Also new is that independent contractors and the self-employed, such as Uber drivers, will be eligible.

Previously, unemployment benefits in Alaska have been provided for up to 26 weeks. Payments topped out at $370 per week.

Also, a new state law sped up and boosted unemployment benefits, including by increasing payments for dependents to $75 weekly, from $24. It expanded the jobless benefits to include people who must care for children at home because of school closures and other coronavirus impacts.

The state is awaiting guidance from the federal Labor Department to expand the program to include the independently employed workers, said Patsy Westcott, director of the state Labor Department’s Division of Employment and Training Services, on Tuesday.

“Once we get the guidance, we will be working to create that program in the State of Alaska to provide benefits to individuals in that (new) sector, but we aren’t in a position to take applications from them at this time,” she said. “Once we have the details and the program is up and running, we’ll be doing press release and media campaign.”

Already, unprecedented numbers of Alaskans have filed for unemployment benefits during the virus-sparked downturn.

The state prefers for people to apply for jobless benefits online, Westcott said. She said the office is inundated with calls.

“We are constantly updating our website with additional guidance,” she said. “We have been working on the application itself, to make it easier and less confusing.”

If you just need some extra money to get by

The stimulus bill will also provide $1,200 stimulus checks to most Americans, with $500 for qualifying children. It phases out for people in higher income brackets

The direct deposit of checks is expected to begin in mid-April. They should arrive fastest for people who have filed taxes online.

The checks will arrive for most people without any action on their part, according to the Internal Revenue Service website. That includes Social Security recipients who don’t file tax returns.

“Social Security recipients who are not typically required to file a tax return do not need to take an action, and will receive their payment directly to their bank account,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, in a statement on Wednesday.

The bill does not provide the $500 payments for children older than 16, according to a report from the Washington Post. Also, people without social security numbers are generally not eligible.

Single tax filers get the full $1,200 payment if adjusted gross income does not exceed $75,000. So do married couples filing joint returns with incomes that don’t exceed $150,000.

The payment falls as income rises.

Single tax-return filers with income above $99,000 aren’t eligible. Joint filers with income above $198,000 and no children are not eligible.

Future updates and more details can be found at irs.gov/coronavirus.

If you’re worried about making rent and utility payments

Utilities, telecommunications companies, banks and the state’s landlord for low-rent housing have taken steps to help Alaskans through the economic pain, including by committing to not shutting off utilities or tossing out renters.

A new state law adds protections. A landlord can’t evict a renter, a utility can’t shut off service and a bank can’t foreclose on your home if you are suffering financial hardship because of the pandemic.

The debt eventually has to be repaid, and landlords can still evict residents for other reasons, including bad behavior.

Car, truck, boat and airplane repossessions are similarly paused.

The law includes a tougher price-gouging statute. Stores can’t raise prices more than 10% when compared to what they charged during the “normal course of business” before the governor declared an emergency on March 11. Fuel is exempted from that rule.

If you’re worried about Medicaid and public assistance benefits

Rules around Medicaid, food assistance and other benefit programs have been relaxed during the crisis to allow more people in need to get onto the rolls, and to keep more Alaskans on the rolls, according to Shawnda O’Brien, director of the state Division of Public Assistance.

Last week’s stimulus bill is expected to provide about $60 million in additional Medicaid funding for Alaska, Sen. Dan Sullivan has said.

Alaskans can apply on the federal marketplace, at healthcare.gov, for Medicaid benefits. For benefits that include the SNAP low-income food program, called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, they can visit the state’s Public Assistance web page.

If you’re worried about student loan payments

The U.S. Education Department is automatically suspending payments for people with federal student loans until Sept. 30.

Interest rates on those loans have been automatically set to 0%. The total cost of monthly student loan payments won’t go down, however; the full amount of the payment will apply to the interest that’s already been accrued and the outstanding principal.

[You can find more information about help for federal student loans here.]

The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education is offering a three-month pause for student loan payments.

[You can find more information about the ACPE offer here.]

More online resources:

The Small Business Development Center website under the University of Alaska Anchorage, is a clearinghouse for information about benefits.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a guide to help small businesses, independent contractors and gig economy workers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office provides a page of resources, plus guides to the Paycheck Protection Program for business owners and borrowers and lenders.

Sen. Sullivan has a small business owners guide discussing the new stimulus law.

The state Department of Community, Commerce and Economic Development has a resource guide for businesses.

For Alaskans who have lost work, the state’s jobless benefits website is being updated regularly to address changes during the crisis.

The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation has this list of resources, including businesses that remain open during the crisis, for Alaskans looking to support the economy.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said borrowers with federal student loans need to request administrative forbearance from their loan servicer. Federal student loan borrowers are automatically being placed in an administrative forbearance until Sept. 30.

Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks in Juneau contributed.


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