Newsletter: Why This Budget Will Be Different and Important COVID-19 Updates!

Dear Resident,

Usually at this time of year, my colleagues and I are in the thick of budget season, figuring out how to leverage your taxpayer dollars to meet our goals of creating a prosperous, equitable city. 

This year is different.

And because of the pandemic, the budget process will be different too. A week from today, on May 12, Mayor Bowser will transmit her budget for fiscal year 2021. In order to keep everyone safe and healthy, the Council’s committees will only be taking testimony virtually, and there will be limited time for live comments (though all written and voicemail testimony will be included). Read more about this year’s budget process below.  

We are also looking ahead to when we can reopen businesses as we continue to safeguard the public’s health. You might have read Mayor Bowser launched a plan last week – ReOpen DC – as well as named committee members from our city to help lead that process. What we know right now is that our current public health protocols will be extended at least through May, and that the District will only begin reopening after the established public health criteria have been met.

I am continuing to connect with residents and share Unemployment Insurance (UI) updates and other information on COVID-19 resources through virtual town halls. My next events will be: 

  • Wednesday, May 6 at 7pm, The Ask Rayceen Show, discussing how to stay safe and strong through the public health crisis. Tune in on Facebook here. 
  • Thursday, May 7 at 6pm, Freelancers Happy Hour! Focusing on support for freelancers and gig workers through the unemployment extension program: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Grab a drink and tune in on our Facebook page.

Interested in hosting a virtual town hall with our office? Email my Deputy Chief of Staff Ashley Fox at: afox@dccouncil.us. I will also be getting more regular info out to you by moving my newsletter from bi-monthly to weekly, so look out for more updates next week!

Stay well and stay strong DC. I know many of you are hurting and struggling right now. We will get through this, and if we do it strategically, we will be a stronger and more equitable city because of it.

Elissa.


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CONSTITUENT Q&A

As many of you know, I have been digging deep into unemployment issues throughout this crisis and have also been working as a volunteer call taker at our auxiliary Unemployment Insurance (UI) call center. I have been receiving many great questions about unemployment and related benefits over the last few weeks, and I would like to start featuring one or two of those questions (and the answer) in my newsletter. This week’s featured question is:

Q. How are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits calculated?

A. PUA is the expansion of UI to those normally not eligible: independent contractors, 1099s, gig workers, new hires. Initially, PUA applicants will be given a minimum benefit amount equal to one-half of DC’s average weekly UI benefit, which is $179 a week. PUA applicants will also get the additional $600 a week through July. Once weekly earnings are confirmed, benefits may be adjusted upward, not to exceed DC’s UI maximum benefit of $444 a week.


LEGISLATIVE UPDATE

Today, the Council voted on our fourth coronavirus relief bill to confront this crisis as it evolves and provide relief where it is needed most. You can read about the previous actions the Council has taken on my website and the Council’s website.

The bill approved today covers everything from rent payments to evictions to third-party food delivery commissions. Here are the highlights:

  • Rent payment plans: The bill requires landlords with five or more units to provide payment plans of at least one year to tenants affected by the public health emergency. These payment plans will help affected tenants avoid large rent bills right after the end of the emergency.
  • Evictions: Tenant protections now go a step further by prohibiting landlords from filing eviction notices for an additional 60 days after the emergency declaration ends.
  • Microgrants will not be taxed as income for businesses. 
  • Third-party food delivery commissions: Food delivery apps can charge restaurants hefty fees, cutting deeply into already slim profits. The Council bill caps these fees at 15%, which is in line with similar efforts in places like Seattle and San Francisco. 
  • Reporting on jail conditions: The Mayor is now required to regularly report to the Council on conditions inside of the DC jail and the steps the administration is taking to combat COVID-19.
  • Giving DC residents a fair shot at COVID-related jobs: My Labor Committee, specifically our new senior analyst Emily Price, worked on language prioritizing DC residents for contact tracers and other jobs created by the pandemic in health-care fields.

The Council also prohibited foreclosures on both single family homes and condos today. This important step, which 15 other states have already taken, will make sure our residents don’t lose their homes because of this virus.


BUDGET SEASON IS COMING

The Council delayed the normal budget process this year to give the Mayor more time to focus on COVID-19 relief efforts. As noted above, the Mayor will now send her proposed budget to the Council on May 12. Each committee will only hold two or three hearings for all of their agencies, with limited time for each hearing. If you are interested in testifying, I strongly encourage you to check out the budget calendar, which shows the timing of hearings as well as each Committee’s process for accepting testimony.

My Labor Committee will be holding one hearing on Monday, May 18, for public witnesses interested in testifying on any of the agencies under the Committee’s jurisdiction. Here’s how it will work:

  • To testify, email labor@dccouncil.us by 10am on Friday, May 15 with your name, email address, telephone number, organizational affiliation and job title (if any). The Committee will then email instructions on how to participate live. 
  • Written testimony can be sent to labor@dccouncil.us, or left via voice message by calling the Committee at 202-455-0153.  
  • Any testimony received over email or voicemail will be included as part of the official record. Due to limited time, the Committee will likely not be able to accommodate all requests to testify live.

There will then be a second Committee hearing on Thursday, May 28, with Department of Employment Services Director Unique Morris-Hughes. For more on the new timeline, including when the Council will take its final votes on the budget, check out the budget calendar here.


UNEMPLOYMENT

If you are receiving unemployment benefits that have recently or are about to run out, you can now file for an extended 13 weeks of support. This extension should be automatically applied to your account (just keep filing weekly as usual), and you will also continue to receive the federal support of $600/week, through July 2020. Click here for more information.


ASSISTANCE FOR BUSINESSES

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Shared Work Program for Employers: This week, my office will be publishing a new Quick Guide on the Shared Work Program (on our Coronavirus Resource Page), which is an excellent option for local businesses who want to avoid layoffs, but need to scale back payroll. By using the Shared Work Program, businesses can supplement employees’ pay due to reduced hours with unemployment benefits – so the business gets to retain experienced staff and employees can receive boosted wages thanks to federal unemployment dollars! Added bonus: all employees who are part of a shared work plan automatically qualify for the federal $600/week unemployment support. Click here to apply.

Expanded Federal Support: The Federal Government has expanded funding for two business support programs: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). These programs are highly popular, so interested applicants are encouraged to act quickly. More information can be found about these in our recent newsletter under the “Assistance for Business” section.


NOW HIRING: CONTACT TRACE FORCE

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Many of you have asked my office about job opportunities with the District's Contact Trace force – applications are now open! These positions will be a mix of full-time and part-time, and all full-time positions will offer benefits. They are for a fixed 13-month term, and hiring/posting of new positions will be ongoing as the District ramps up contact tracing. The Force will be a critical part of our efforts to reopen DC and is a great service opportunity for those in low-risk populations. Applications are now open at: careers.dc.gov

In today's legislative session, the Council passed a bill with language authored by my Committee Staff challenging the Department of Health Director to set a goal of hiring 50% District Residents for all Contract Trace Force positions. The Committee Staff further set the goal that 25% of hires to the entry level position “Investigator” be graduates of District funded or administered workforce development/adult education programs.

This legislation advances opportunities for our neighbors of color and from under-resourced neighborhoods and is the beginning of building a pipeline from training and education to quality job creation.


CORONAVIRUS TESTING

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Howard University Hospital has opened a new testing site at 4414 Benning Road NE. The site will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00am-2:00pm. Appointments are required and can be made by calling: 202-865-2119.

The District has recently expanded priority coronavirus testing for some residents who are not yet showing symptoms. As of the Mayor’s April 21, 2020 announcement, the District has three priority groups for testing at the United Medical Center and UDC Bertie Backus Campus sites.

  1. Hospitalized patients and healthcare facility workers with COVID-19 symptoms or history of exposure to a laboratory confirmed COVID-19 patient. 
  2. The following individuals who are exhibiting symptoms OR who have a history of exposure to a laboratory confirmed COVID-19 patient: patients in long-term care facilities; patients over the age of 65; patients with underlying health conditions; and first responders. 
  3. Individuals with symptoms. 

If you are asymptomatic and not in one of the priority testing groups, you can still be tested by a private lab. Testing at the public sites and most private sites will require an advance appointment. To make an appointment at one of the District’s public sites, call 855-363-0333 between the hours of 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Click here for more details on testing, including what to bring to your appointment and hours of operation for the District’s public sites.

The District is also working towards making antibody testing available within the next week. 


HOSPITAL UPDATE

Last week, the Mayor announced new agreements that would bring two new hospitals to the District: 

  • A 136-bed hospital at St. Elizabeth’s East in Ward 8, operated by Universal Health Services in conjunction with George Washington University and George Washington Medical Faculty Associates.
  • A 225-bed hospital operated by Howard University in Ward 1. 

These agreements must be approved by the Council, and I will be taking a closer look at how the new hospital plans ensure our residents get the high-quality care they deserve. I am eager to see the specific contracts and details on what services will be offered, especially at the hospital in Ward 8. I am concerned that the emergency room is only level 3 trauma, which means that critical patients will still need to be transported across the District. We have a unique opportunity to address critical health equity issues with these facilities, and it is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.


HOUSING ASSISTANCE

A new $1.5 million rental assistance program will be available starting on May 11th from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The fund will be managed by Community Based Organizations and nonprofits and offer assistance to low income renters experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19. DHCD estimates that the program will serve approximately 400 households for a minimum of 6 months and up to two years. Stay tuned for more updates.  

The Housing Committee has also published an updated Quick Reference Guide that addresses a variety of housing questions and issues. 


PET PANTRY OPEN FOR PETS IN NEED

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Pet owners and animal lovers have something extra to celebrate during National Pet Week (this week) – the opening of the Humane Rescue Alliance's (HRA) Pet Pantry! HRA recognizes that if people in the District are struggling during COVID-19, then their pets probably are, too. The Pet Pantry provides free pet food to those in need and will distribute supplies using social distancing protocols. Food distribution sites and times vary, so visit the Pet Pantry website for details and the most updated distribution schedule.