Guide To Financial Resources And Relief For Those Affected By COVID-19

Here's where to go for help if you've lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged us all in ways never imagined. Not only does constant danger lurk of contracting COVID-19, but our daily routines have been turned upside down. It certainly doesn’t help that the virus has also placed enormous financial pressure on workers and businesses owners.

If your income has been affected by the crisis, it can be overwhelming to figure out which bills to pay and where to go for help. The good news is that many financial resources are available if you know where to look.

Benefits.gov is a great place to start, according to Leslie Tayne, a debt resolution lawyer and author of the book “Life & Debt: A Fresh Approach to Achieving Financial Wellness.” “The website helps navigate you to state and federal level benefits, including unemployment insurance, job placement and training, and more,” she said.

For legal assistance, check out your local bar association’s website. Tayne noted that many of the associations are updating their websites with COVID-19-specific resources for legal help during this time.

USA.gov is another official government resource that contains trustworthy information, Tayne said. Its Disaster Financial Assistance page responds to commonly asked questions and provides information about the CARES Act, including such matters as stimulus checks, the expansion of unemployment benefits, home loan relief for federally backed mortgages, credit report protection and resources for small businesses.

If you are a small business owner, Tayne said you should subscribe to updates on SBA.gov for the latest information regarding loans and financial assistance (although the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money and was criticized for giving priority to businesses that needed the funding least, more funding will be available soon through a second stimulus package).

For specific financial assistance, many federal, state and local programs may be able to help. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking for help covering food, bills, housing and more.

Help With Meals

With limited income, ensuring that you and your family have enough to eat can be a struggle. A number of resources are available to help to cut the cost of food or even provide free meals.

Discounts on food delivery: With stay-at-home orders in place, many people are relying on delivery services to get their meals. However, these services charge fees, which add up quickly if you’re relying on them regularly. Fortunately, dozens of companies that deliver orders from restaurants and grocery stores, as well as prepared meals, are discounting or waiving fees.

SNAP Program: “If you lost your income and have difficulty putting food on the table, you can consider applying to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” said Gladice Gong, a personal finance blogger at Earn More Live Freely. You can apply for SNAP benefits online in most states, or at a local state or county office. “If you are eligible, you will receive SNAP benefits on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card,” Gong said. Benefits are automatically loaded to your card each month and you can use it to buy groceries at authorized food stores and retailers.

WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federal program that provides assistance to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. You’ll need to contact your state or local agency to apply; check your state’s website or call the toll-free number.

School meals: Millions of children rely on the National School Lunch Program for hot meals every day. But with schools closed down, many families lost access to this source of low-cost or free food. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently authorized schools to allow parents to pick up meals for their children, as long as a process was in place to verify that the food was going to eligible children. Some families have complained that their schools turned them away despite this new guidance, however. Call your child’s school to find out if you’re eligible to pick up meals.

Food banks: You can locate a local food bank, pantry or soup kitchen by visiting Feeding America or FoodPantries.

Hunger hotline: Gong recommended that anyone struggling to feed themselves or their families call the USDA National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273). The hotline operates Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. ET.

Assistance With Housing

Whether you rent your residence or own it, housing is likely the largest monthly expense you face. If you are struggling to pay your rent or mortgage, some relief may be available, depending on where you live and the type of housing.

Rent

No rent freezes are in place, but many jurisdictions have banned rent increases amid the pandemic. And many tenants are protected by temporary eviction moratoriums, which prevent landlords from taking renters to eviction court for unpaid rent. Under the CARES Act, moratoriums on evictions and late fees apply to all federally subsidized housing and properties financed through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. Citywide moratoriums are in place as well. However, this doesn’t mean that tenants don’t have to pay rent ― if necessary, they must work out a repayment plan with their landlords. Keep in mind that moratoriums are not in effect in every city.

Regardless of whether you’re protected from eviction under temporary moratoriums, you can seek out help paying rent if you don’t have the income to cover it. Visit the national Rent Assistance website for a directory of government and non-profit rental assistance agencies and organizations in your area.

Mortgage

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises that homeowners who can afford to continue paying their mortgages do so. However, if you are struggling to keep up with the payments, you should immediately reach out to your lender for assistance. Similar to eviction moratoriums, the CARES Act includes a foreclosure moratorium, as well as a right to forbearance for homeowners who are experiencing financial hardships due to the COVID-19 emergency, on federally backed mortgages for up to 180 days.

Even if you don’t have a federal mortgage loan, most major banks and lenders are offering some type of mortgage payment deferment. However, it’s important to understand the terms of how any skipped payments will be made up; some lenders are simply extending the loan term to make up for the missed payments, while others are requiring a lump sum payment at the end of the deferment period. Also, be prepared for unusually long wait times when calling to speak with your lender.

Help Paying Bills

In addition to housing, you may experience issues with paying other important bills on time. Though they may not seem as urgent as housing, it’s important not to skip these bills if possible, as doing so can have serious repercussions on your credit. With poor credit, it will be much more difficult to borrow money, secure housing and open utility accounts in the future.

Electricity and gas: If you’re struggling to pay for these services, reach out to your utility company right away. Many are suspending disconnections for those who don’t pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis. Some have actually been ordered to suspend disconnections by regulators or other government officials. The Energy and Policy Institute maintains a list of service providers that have and have not suspended disconnects.

Phone and cable: FCC chairman Ajit Pai has encouraged broadband companies to participate in a “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, which asks them to not terminate service for nonpayment due to the coronavirus, as well as waive late fees and open up Wi-Fi hotspots to those who need access. Dozens of companies have taken the pledge so far.

Credit cards: If you carry credit card debt, it’s important to reach out to your issuer and ask about relief options. Many major issuers are working with customers who ask for help, including waiving late fees, deferring interest and not reporting missed payments to credit bureaus. This guide to credit card payment relief from Wirecutter outlines what types of assistance are being offered by about a dozen major banks and how to contact them.

Student loans: Good news for federal student loan borrowers: As part of the CARES Act, payments on these loans have been automatically suspended through Sept. 30. However, if your income is still affected beyond this date, you may qualify for an income-driven repayment plan to help lower payments in line with your earnings. Financial technology company Savi has launched a free COVID-19 Student Loan Aid Tool that helps borrowers apply for the plan.

If you have private student loans, your options may be more limited, as federal protections don’t apply to private lenders. Still, your state may have instituted some protections (Massachusetts, for example, suspended private loan debt collection activities for 90 days) and many private student loan companies offer hardship programs for borrowers facing financial difficulties or job loss. Again, it’s important to speak with your lender or servicer to find out what options are available.

Financial Help For Laid-Off Workers

Unemployment benefits were expanded under the CARES Act. Not only does the plan eliminate the waiting period to receive benefits, it also covers previously ineligible workers such as freelancers, contractors and furloughed employees. In addition to regular unemployment benefits, workers receive an additional $600 per week for four months. Benefits were also extended by 13 weeks beyond the standard 26 weeks of state benefits, though some states offer less.

If you work in an industry hit particularly hard by the pandemic, a host of relief funds and other financial assistance may be available to you in addition to regular unemployment benefits. Below are a couple of examples of seriously affected industries ― reach out to your industry organizations to find out about additional opportunities.

Service industry: Whether you worked for a hotel, restaurant, bar or other service industry, there’s a good chance your job status and income has been hurt by shutdowns caused by the pandemic. Several emergency relief funds exist for workers in specific industries, such as the Bartender Emergency Assistance Fund and the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Fund. Horizon Beverage maintains an up-to-date list of relief funds for hospitality, restaurant and beverage industry workers, which you should review to find out if you might be eligible for assistance.

Freelancers: “Freelancers are one group of people who often fall between the cracks in government schemes,” said Ben Taylor, founder of HomeWorkingClub, an advice portal for freelancers. Thankfully, he said, charitable funds have been popping up, such as the Freelancers Relief Fund from the Freelancers Union and the COVID-19 Emergency Fund from Freelancer Co-Op. “As these are funded by donations, new applications tend to open and close, so it’s well worth checking such offerings regularly,” he said. You can also review this comprehensive guide to resources for freelancers, gig workers and contractors.

Help For Small Businesses

The coronavirus stimulus package included $350 billion in emergency assistance for small businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to small businesses that promised to keep employees on their payrolls. Unfortunately, as noted, that program quickly ran out of money, with some major corporations under fire for accepting giant loans while many struggling small businesses got nothing.

If you’re the owner of a small business, you may not be out of luck, though. The second relief bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump on Friday, includes an additional $310 billion set aside for a second round of the PPP. If you plan to take advantage, it’s a good idea to be prepared to apply quickly (the application process starts on Monday at 10:30 a.m. ET). Have all your paperwork in order, and consider establishing a relationship with a bank now so the process will go more smoothly.

Other sources of federal aid for small businesses include the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance through the SBA. Additionally, many states are providing varying levels of financial assistance; Clover has a comprehensive guide to small business financial help available today.

Free Financial Advice

If you are overwhelmed by your financial situation and need guidance from a professional on how to best handle it, many organizations are providing free services. Below are a few examples of where to find free financial planning help.

Credit counseling: Consolidated Credit, a national non-profit credit counseling agency, established a free “Shutdown Hotline” to connect callers with certified credit counselors who can help with credit and debt management and housing counseling. The hotline (800-745-2513) is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET.

The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education partnered with Wells Fargo and the Yellow Ribbon Network to launch free, unbiased financial counseling and coaching. AFCPE certified professionals are available to discuss unique financial situations, help create spending plans, provide advice on how to make the best use of the government stimulus checks and more. You can sign up here.

Financial planning: Many certified financial planners are also providing their services for free. For example, members of the XY Planning Network (XYPN), an organization of fee-for-service financial planners, are offering free emergency financial advice to those who have lost a job, lost income from reduced work or taken unpaid sick leave as a result of COVID-19. You can visit XYPN’s “Find an Advisor” search portal and search under the keyword phrase “coronavirus relief” to find available CFP professionals. All advisors on the platform are available to meet virtually, regardless of a person’s location.

The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, another organization of fee-only financial planners, has a pro bono committee that may be able to help.

Financial Resources For The Military

Some of the challenges faced by service members and their families are similar to what civilian counterparts face: concerns over retirement savings, budgeting and job security, particularly for spouses who often work part-time or remote positions to supplement the family’s income, according to Jerry Quinn, chief operating officer of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association.

He also noted that hundreds of thousands of military families who were in the process of following a relocation or permanent change of station order have been forced to put their move on hold. “On top of stress and uncertainty, families in this scenario face a slew of even more urgent expenses and financial challenges, such as mortgage or rent payments for homes they are unable to move into or houseware and clothing costs to replace items that may have already been shipped to the new duty station,” he said.

The good news is that many military and veteran-focused relief organizations are providing support, including Army Emergency Relief, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, Air Force Aid Society and Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

“These four have each been around for many years and have helped thousands of service members through difficult times,” Quinn said. “When in doubt, call these organizations directly with any questions about your situation and what assistance you may qualify for.”


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