As 2020’s record-setting hurricane season enters its most active phase, President Donald Trump wants to take billions of dollars away from hurricane-related disaster relief to provide expanded unemployment benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last weekend, Trump announced a series of executive orders after congressional leaders and the White House could not agree to another coronavirus relief bill that would have likely expanded federal unemployment benefits.
One of the orders would allow the president to take up to $44 billion in disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for COVID-related unemployment claims. The order would leave $25 billion in FEMA’s disaster relief fund if all the unemployment money is spent, down from the $68.4 billion that is currently in the fund as of July 31.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week he’s not planning to take the extra money, despite calls from some state lawmakers, because he’s considering going to the U.S. Department of Labor for a loan to increase benefits for Floridians, which, at a maximum of just $275 per week, are among the stingiest in the nation. DeSantis doesn’t want to use money Florida already has in its coffers for coronavirus relief to match the federal funds from the executive order, which requires states to cover 25% of the expanded benefits.
“We’re looking to see what that would entail,” DeSantis said on Tuesday. “I think if we can do the Department of Labor enhanced benefit through that loan, we would want to do it to give people some more relief.”
But if a major storm bears down on Florida in the coming weeks, Trump’s executive order would potentially divert funds from the recovery effort. Ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017, Congress scrambled to pass a relief bill because FEMA was scheduled to run out of disaster relief money two days before the storm’s projected landfall date. Irma made landfall two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused billions of dollars in damage in Texas and two weeks before Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
A White House official told the Miami Herald on Thursday that the $25 billion left in the disaster relief fund will not be spent on unemployment benefits in case it’s needed for hurricane relief.
But Congress left Washington this week without expanding unemployment benefits, and neither the House nor the Senate are scheduled to be in session until after Labor Day. A major disaster in the next four weeks could cause a funding crisis. The greatest concentration of hurricanes generally occurs from mid-August through October.
A spokesperson for Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who represents most of coastal Miami-Dade County, said Trump’s executive order is “playing with fire.”
“Anybody who lives in Florida knows that the hurricane season is incredibly unpredictable,” Shalala spokesperson Carlos Condarco said. “We need to be able to marshal all the resources that are available to quickly address these problems. Taking FEMA money to pay for unemployment benefits when [scientists] are predicting the most active season on record is incredibly risky and the president is playing with fire.”
Federal forecasters are predicting up to 25 named storms in 2020, the highest number ever forecast, pushing the season into extremely active territory. They may even run out of names in the 2020 hurricane list and may need to use letters in the Greek alphabet to name storms later this season.
The 2020 season has already set a record with nine named storms before Aug. 1. Hurricane Isaias, which largely spared Florida but caused damage farther up the East Coast, was the costliest hurricane for that region since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany confirmed that FEMA funds would be used for unemployment benefits during a news conference this week, though she said the money will “snap back” in the event of a major storm.
“Yeah, so there is that snap-back provision that, if FEMA does get below a certain level that that money will snap back,” McEnany said. “So that is certainly a concern, and we’ll make sure that two things happen: that Americans get paid, but also that there’s enough funding there to safely go through hurricane season.”
A spokesperson for FEMA assured that disaster funds would be available for states and territories that request assistance.
The president’s executive order would give states and territories the ability to pay unemployed individuals $400 per week, with a $300 federal contribution. The states and territories will administer the program and distribute the funds through their regular unemployment insurance system, as a supplemental payment.
The program will be applied retroactively to the week ending Aug. 1 and will continue through Dec. 6, 2020, or until the disaster relief fund falls to $25 billion, or Congress enacts a replacement unemployment relief program.
Individuals who currently receive at least $100 per week of unemployment compensation benefits, and provide self-certification that they are unemployed, or are unable or unavailable to work due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 are eligible for the supplement through their state or territory unemployment office.
Trump’s four executive orders, which also included a deferral on payroll taxes, spurred criticism from Democrats and some Republicans.
“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said shortly after the orders were announced. In response, Trump referred to Sasse as a “RINO,” or Republican-in-name-only.
In addition to using FEMA funds for unemployment, states would be responsible for covering 25% of the expanded benefits. The $600 per week in additional federal benefits on top of existing state benefits expired earlier this month. Democrats want to extend it through the end of the year or beyond, while many Republicans argued that the $600 per week benefit encouraged people not to work.
The order could also be challenged in the courts because the White House does not have the power to spend federal funds.
And taking money from FEMA could backfire in Florida if a major storm threatens the state weeks before Election Day. Trump almost assuredly needs to win Florida to get a second term.
[Shalala] “thinks that we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Condarco said. “If we’re taking money from one program to fund another, it will only compound our problems in the long run.”