Money, money, money

It’s not hyperbole to say life as we knew it has flipped upside down.

Travel is frowned upon. Public schools, non-essential agencies and businesses are closed. Restaurants are trying to survive with takeout only. Toilet paper, of all commodities, is harder to find than buried treasure.

One area where the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Americans the hardest, however, is in the wallet. Many are simply out of work. Others have been furloughed with no guarantee of a paycheck anytime soon even if they file for compensation through overwhelmed unemployment offices.

Fortunately, those encountering financial hardships can find help. This article is focused on the military and federal agencies, utility companies, banks/credit unions and others that have stepped forward with offers of assistance so community members can keep lights and water on, not lose homes and, yes, afford to buy toilet paper and other necessity-of-life staples.

To start with, military members have Army Emergency Relief, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and the Air Force Aid Society that offer loans, grants and other forms of lending to eligible applicants. They offer financial assistance for such things as mortgage and rent, utilities, vehicle repair, medical bills not covered by military insurance, emergency travel, burial of a loved one, and more.

Sailors, Marines and Airmen on Fort Lee can contact their respective agencies through the websites www.nmcrs.org and afas.org. The American Red Cross also works in partnership with military aid societies to provide quality, reliable financial assistance to eligible applicants 24/7 and 365 days a year.

“Fort Lee AER continues to provide emergency financial assistance, but with COVID-19 safety and precautions in mind, we are on a telework schedule and ask that everyone please call for an appointment,” said Patsy Piggott, the installation’s AER specialist.

Soldiers are encouraged to meet with their local AER officer in-person; however, those unable to do so should follow the process outlined on the agency’s websitewww.armyemergencyrelief.org. Piggott said as Fort Lee AER continues to provide assistance they alsowill ensurethe staff is vigilant for Red Cross emergencies, as they are always a priority.

She added that if Soldiers here are experiencing a Red Cross emergency, they can contact her at 804-734-7952 orpatsy.m.piggott.civ@mail.milor Tonya Brock at 804-734-7954 ortonya.d.brock2.civ@mail.mil.Those needing immediate aid when Piggott and Brock are unavailable can contact the Red Cross directly at 1-877-272-7337 or submit a request online at saf.redcross.org/css. Eligibility requirements for Red Cross aid can be found at: www.redcross.org/get-help/military-families/financial-assistance.html.

During this pandemic, the Federal Employee and Education Assistance Fund is prioritizing its no-fee, no-interest hardship loans to serve DOD Civilians who have exhausted all annual, sick, advanced and FFCRA leave from their agency. Assistance is available to those who are:

  • Hospitalized with COVID-19
  • Severely ill at home with COVID-19 (unable to work)
  • Serving as primary caregiver for a family member, living in the employee’s home, who is seriously ill with COVID-19

The initial loan maximum will be $500. The program’s ability to give loans during this time is subject to available funding and lower-income families will receive priority for what’s available. For more information about this loan and the program visit feea.org/our-programs/emergency-loans/coronavirus-loans.

DOD Civilians and military also can borrow from their Thrift Savings Plans while still employed by the federal government or while still a service member. Before taking out a TSP loan though, the agency said members should carefully consider its potential effect on retirement savings. For more information about the loans, or in-service withdrawals visit www.tsp.gov/PlanParticipation/LoansAndWithdrawals/index.html.

Federal and state governments have announced plans to help struggling homeowners pay mortgage and rent during this time. A new federal law – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – puts in place two protections for homeowners with federally backed mortgages:

  • A foreclosure moratorium
  • The right to forbearance for homeowners who are experiencing a financial hardship due to the COVID-19 emergency

Those who don’t have a federally backed mortgage, may have relief options through the mortgage servicer or from the state. It is recommended that individuals not wait until payments are delinquent before calling to discuss what assistance is available.

The CARES Act also directs a suspension or moratorium on evictions by landlords whose property is financed by a federally backed mortgage. Renters cannot be evicted for nonpayment for 120 days beginning March 27, the effective date of CARES. After the 120-day period is up, the landlord cannot require the tenant to vacate until providing a thirty-day notice.

For rental properties not covered by the CARES Act, many states have enacted a blanket suspension of all evictions and foreclosures at this time. Check the websites of your state government, state court, or legal aid program for details and updates. A good blog post with additional information can be viewed at www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/guide-coronavirus-mortgage-relief-options.

Bank of America and US bank are two of 22 credit card and lending agencies listed in an April 1 Business Insider article that are offering deferments and other payment options. A notice on the US Bank website reads, “If COVID-19 has impacted your ability to pay mortgage, we may be able to help. We’re offering assistance programs that may allow you to suspend payments for up to 180 days with no late fees.”

Repayment of student loans also is covered by the CARES Act. It provides an automatic suspension of principal and interest payments on federally backed loans through Sept. 30.For others, such as private financial help arranged through a commercial lender or the educational institution, it is recommended that individuals contact their loan servicer immediately to learn what relief options are available.

There’s hope also for those who can’t pay their utility bills. The State Corporation Commission issued an order directing utilities it regulates – such as electric, natural gas and water companies in Virginia – to suspend service disconnections for 60 days to provide immediate relief for any customer, residential or business, who may be financially impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

And last but not least, having money for food and the elusive toilet paper is an issue that Governor Ralph Northam addressed with the following actions to protect working Virginians impacted by COVID-19.He directed the Commissioner of the Virginia Employment Commission to waive the one-week waiting period to ensure workers can receive benefits as soon as possible. They also enhanced the eligibility for workers to receive unemployment benefits if an employer needs to temporarily slow or cease operations due to COVID-19.

If a worker has been issued a notice to self-quarantine by a medical or public health official and is not receiving paid sick or medical leave from their employer, they may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. In addition, a worker may be eligible for unemployment benefits if they must stay home to care for an ill family member and are not receiving paid family medical leave from their employer.

Furthermore, for individuals receiving unemployment insurance, Northam is directing the VEC to give affected workers special consideration on deadlines, mandatory re-employment appointments and work-search requirements.

To file an unemployment claim, visit www.vec.virginia.gov/unemployed.

“These times also may result in drastic measures for those still employed such as reducing or stopping 401K, IRA and 529 contributions in an effort to provide additional income month-to-month, especially if the household does not have an emergency fund in place,”observed Army Community Service Financial Readiness Program Manager Juanita Lazenby.

“The upcoming months will be a stressful time for a lot of households financially, so I would advise individuals to conduct an honest assessment of their finances and address shortcomings by reaching out to see what relief is available. You also can contact my office (804-734-6388) for budget counseling.”

For more information about the CARES Act and what it does for consumers, visit: www.congress.gov/116/bills/hr748/BILLS-116hr748enr.pdf.