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Editor's Note: When relief brings little relief

IN CANADA, many citizens made recently unemployed by COVID-19 related layoffs have already received the first of their $2,000 per month relief payments.

Out-of-work Canadians get their Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments for the next four months, with almost no questions asked.

Specifically, in most cases Canadians only had to answer three questions, in an online process that takes a couple of minutes at most.

“It was so easy, I thought it was fake,” is how one Canadian described the experience.

One of the key elements of CERB is what the Canadian government frankly describes as an “honor system”: If you’re later determined not to actually be eligible, you’ll just have to pay the money back.

That perhaps uniquely Canadian honor system is part of an accelerated process which their government said was crucial to the entire point of the relief payments: The money is urgently needed, during a time of urgent emergency. No-brainer, right?

The Canadian funds aren’t exactly the same as the $1200 one-time payments American adults will get through the IRS, as the Canadian relief essentially takes the place of unemployment insurance.

In the U.S., by contrast, many newly unemployed people seeking relief payments through the newly passed CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) are either still wrestling with a variety of massively understaffed and overwhelmed state offices and federal agencies, or still don’t really have much of a clue what to do, or — most often — a combination of both.

The Georgia Dept. of Labor is currently processing as many unemployment claims in a single week as it did in all of 2019. By neglect or by design, it is simply incapable of handling the demand.

For unemployed Georgians trying to navigate the state’s overburdened unemployment insurance system, it’s been like a chapter out of a Kafka novel.

I spoke to a few of them to get an idea of the level of difficulty and frustration.

My heart goes out to them. They all deserve better.

“You need a copy of your separation letter (if your employer didn’t file for you), and usually that is done in person,” one person begins.

“You have to fax it in. I did a PDF to fax. It took 4 days for them to receive, even though I had a confirmation because their fax machine was so backed up. Then the page they needed wasn’t legible, so I had to try another online fax system, I don’t know if they got it — I have a confirmation,” the person continues.

“ There is no way for us to email the letters to them. The back-up is ridiculous. It took almost a week for me to even be entered into the system so I could file.”

Another says, “you can’t reach anyone, emails go unanswered and it says if they need more info they will contact you.”

Persistence does pay off for some.

“When filing online, every time you hit the continue button the next page bumps you off, unless you do this: For every single page you fill out you have to save and exit,” one person tells me. “It says it’s a 30-minute process — it took me an hour and 38 minutes but I was able to do it.”

And that’s just the process for individuals going through the state, to get enhanced unemployment payments which will feature an extra $600 for several months (the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, FPUC).

For small businesses trying to apply for the relief through the CARES Act, the situation can be even more dire, depending on circumstances.

There are several types of small business relief offered:

The EID (Economic Injury Disaster) Loan is directly through the Small Business Association site. It’s for businesses with fewer than 500 employees and pays up to $2 million, at 3.7 percent interest.

The EID Advance Loan you apply for at the same place as the EID:– it asks if you’d also like to apply for the Advance. That loan is up to $10,000, or $1,000 per employee, and doesn’t have to be repaid.

The most vital, and controversial, small business relief through CARES is the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). This one is problematic because it must be done through a bank, with a strong preference for a lender you’re already doing business with. There is a forgivable portion of this one-percent interest loan.

Unlike EIDL, the PPP is meant almost entirely for keeping employees employed. 75 percent of the money HAS to be used for payroll in order for eight weeks of the loan to be forgiven.

You can get both the EIDL and the PPP, but you can’t use the money for the same expenses. For example, if you use PPP for May and June’s payroll, you can’t also use EIDL for May and June payroll.

(I got most of the above info from a recent Zoom meeting hosted by the City of Savannah Economic Development Department, which was a great service.)

Unfortunately, not all banks are treating customers the same way. Some customers seem to be penalized for not currently having outstanding debt with their banks.

Because of the odd dilemma many businesses now find themselves in — whether it might actually behoove their employees more to lay them off then keep them on — you get some weird situations.

“Our difficulty is helping clients decide whether to furlough or keep them on the payroll and go for the Paycheck Protection Program funds,” says one local financial advisor.

I cannot imagine what it’s like to be a small business owner right now. Even during the best of times, federal, state, and city government can seem commited to making life as difficult as possible for them.

But now? Forget about it.

We don’t usually think of “heroes” as being restaurant, shop, or bar owners hunched over a laptop for hours desperately trying to secure the relief that’s been promised, to keep the doors open so people can keep their jobs.

It’s certainly not as compelling or inspiring an image as some others.

But small business owners are among my biggest heroes right now. You always deserved so much better.