Coronavirus Florida: Laid off? 7 steps to take, and phone calls to make, now
The laid-off line cook was confused and tearful as she pondered the sudden loss of her $400-a-week job at a Lake Worth Beach restaurant.
Kasia, who asked that her last name not be published, wanted answers to questions many economic victims of the coronavirus pandemic are asking. How could she apply for unemployment? What about her bills?
“I’m just gonna pray,” Kasia said.
Economists expect the crippling shutdown to put hundreds of thousands of Floridians — and millions of Americans — out of work. Mortgage lenders and others are stepping in to offer assistance.
For instance, the Gold Coast Federal Credit Union of Palm Springs on Tuesday began a “skip-a-pay” program to let strapped members miss a loan payment.
“The good news is a lot of creditors seem to be pretty proactive with the concessions they’re giving out,” said Thomas Nitzsche, financial educator at Money Management International, a national consumer credit counseling service.
There is a caveat, Nitzsche said: You need to communicate with your creditors to let them know you’ve fallen on hard times.
Labor officials and credit counselors advise the following steps:
Apply for unemployment: Florida’s unemployment benefits max out at $275 a week. It’s no huge sum (a Democratic state senator from Miami on Tuesday said Florida is home to “the country’s worst unemployment insurance system”), but the check can be a lifeline. The state requires all claims to be filed online at www.floridajobs.org. With the sudden surge of applications, the state’s system has been overwhelmed. To beat the crowds, Tom Veenstra of CareerSource Palm Beach County suggests logging in at night. To reach the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity by phone, call 800-204-2418 or 800-681-8102.
Call your credit card company. If you’ve lost your job, don’t silently skip a payment. Credit card issuers impose punitive penalties and interest rates on borrowers who miss monthly payments, and the costly cascade can be financially devastating. However, if you alert your card issuer right away, you can mitigate the damage. “Most credit card companies have some kind of program in place to suspend payments,” Nitzsche said.
Call your mortgage servicer. Mortgage giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration last week announced that they wouldn’t evict or foreclose on homeowners for at least 60 days. Freddie and Fannie also said they would provide payment forbearance to borrowers affected by the coronavirus. Forbearance allows for a mortgage payment to be suspended for up to 12 months. However, these breaks don’t apply automatically. A borrower needs to contact the mortgage servicer — the company responsible for collecting monthly payments. That company’s name and contact information appears on your monthly bill.
Contact your landlord. Your landlord won’t know you were laid off unless you make a phone call, so get in touch right away. “Probably now more than ever, it’s important to have a good relationship with your landlord,” Nitzsche said. The Federal Housing Finance Agency said Monday that it would offer mortgage forbearance to landlords — with the condition that they suspend all evictions for renters unable to pay rent due to the impact of coronavirus. The order could affect 40 million tenants, the agency said.
Contact your student loan servicer. Federal student loans allow for “forbearance” — a pause in payments during a layoff or other financial hardship. The U.S. Department of Education, which has a guide here, says you should contact your servicer to negotiate new terms. If you don’t know who your servicer is or how to contact them, visit StudentAid.gov/login or call 800-433-3243. And remember the distinction between federal and private student loans. The more lenient terms offered on federal loans might not apply to loans from private lenders.
Contact your utility company. While public officials telling people to stay home, Florida Power & Light and Lake Worth Utilities both have stopped cutting service to customers. FPL is directing customers to FPL.com/help.
Make a budget. Until a few weeks ago, the U.S. economy was booming. Unemployment was at record lows, and consumer spending is on the rise. Now, things are different. “Absolutely it’s a wake-up call to get your financial house in order,” Nitzsche said. “It’s really imperative to be careful with the funds that you do have.” Nitzsche suggests making a budget. This is the time to cut back unnecessary expenses and look for new income streams.
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This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.