With another federal stimulus package within reach, some Bay Area workers — many who have been unemployed and struggling for months — are breathing a cautious sigh of relief.

But they worry the package, which may include stimulus checks of between $600 and $700, won’t be enough.

“You can give me an extra $600 once, but who’s going to help me over the next months?” Alma Cardenas, a single mother of two living in East San Jose, asked in Spanish. “I owe $14,000 on my credit card even with unemployment.”

After a series of stalled negotiations, Congress appears to be making progress on a relief package that could also include an extra $300 per week in federal unemployment. But while the latest round of aid will help, many people worry about the massive debts they’ve racked up as the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on their lives and income.

When shelter-in-place orders shut down major swaths of the U.S. economy and put millions of Californians out of work, many in the Bay Area scraped by thanks to one-time stimulus checks of $1,200, plus an extra $600 per week in federal unemployment. But the one-time checks were spent quickly, and the $600 a week shrank to $300 a week, and then ended altogether in the fall.

Without that extra aid, 38-year-old Beth Hommell receives $310 a week in unemployment.

“No one can pay for their bills with that amount of money,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Hommell worked part-time at Jessica Lasky Catering in Oakland and ran a small events business called Coast Caravans, which rented vintage trailers for use as mobile bars, photo booths and more. The catering company has been closed for months, and the events that powered Coast Caravans have dried up.

Now, she’s working occasional odd jobs, mostly painting and repairing trailers, to make ends meet. And she’s been pursuing her woodworking hobby, and trying to sell her art online.

Hommell has no idea when the event industry will bounce back, but she’s optimistic the federal stimulus package will come through.

“It would be great,” she said. “It’s been pretty hard.”

Hommell would use the extra money to pay off her debt — she owes money to credit card companies, her parents, her friends and her former landlord. She had to move in October when a fire damaged the cottage she rented in Oakland. Now, she pays $750 a month to rent space from a friend living on the Santa Rosa/ Calistoga border.

But Eduardo Torres, the Northern California Regional Coordinator of tenant rights group Tenants Together, scoffed when asked about the potential $600 stimulus checks. Many Bay Area renters owe their landlords thousands of dollars, he said. And that could come due as early as Jan. 31, if the current state eviction moratorium is not extended.

“For a tenant who’s on back rent — and we’ve talked to a lot of tenants who have not been able to pay their full rent during the pandemic — $600 is not going to cut it,” Torres said. “$600 is a slap in the face.”

  • SAN JOSE – DECEMBER 16: A portrait of Alma Cardenas at her home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN JOSE – DECEMBER 16: Alma Cardenas walks out of her home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN JOSE – DECEMBER 16: A portrait of Alma Cardenas at her home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

  • ORINDA, CA – DECEMBER 16 :Signs on a vehicle are photographed during a stimulus package rally on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Orinda, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • ORINDA, CA – DECEMBER 16: Vanessa Bulnes speaks to the media during a rally about COVID-19 rent relief on Dec. 16, 2020, in Orinda, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

  • ORINDA, CA – DECEMBER 16: Vanessa Bulnes, left, elbow pumps a supporter, during a rally on Dec. 16, 2020, in Orinda, Calif. Bulnes was speaking on a COVID-19 stimulus package. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)



Cardenas, who has been unemployed since she was laid off from her job as a barista in Sunnyvale three months ago, shares those concerns. Her church has offered to pay part of her January rent, and the federal relief will help some, but she’ll still struggle.

“It will help at least a little,” she said. “But for me, what they’re doing is still not enough.”

When COVID-19 shut down schools, Vanessa Bulnes was out of a job. She worked as a teacher at a daycare and preschool in Oakland. The school tried online classes for two months, but stopped when it ran out of funding. In September, the school opened at half-capacity and Bulnes could return — but only part-time.

Bulnes is collecting unemployment, and her husband, who was left disabled by a stroke, collects $900 a month in government benefits. Their 26-year-old daughter has been out of work since quitting her job at FexEd over fears it would expose her to the virus.

“We haven’t been able to pay rent,” Bulnes said. “And I was already paying like 70% of my income before the pandemic towards rent.”

By February, she estimates she’ll owe about $25,000 in back rent for her family’s Oakland house. Bulnes, who is a member of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, is trying to do something about that. On Wednesday, she joined a car caravan demonstration in Orinda to rally support for AB 15 and AB 16 — two bills that would expand protections for California renters.

If she gets any money from the new federal stimulus package, Bulnes will try to set some aside to pay off her rent.

When 41-year-old Stephanie Koepnick, an English professor at Merced College, received the first $1,200 stimulus check, it made a world of difference, she said. She used it to pay her utility bills.

“I would use it for that again,” she said. “I’m late on both PG&E and my water.”

Koepnick makes about $80,000 a year, but had to take a leave of absence after her son died in 2018. She’s been fighting off debt ever since. Now, she said, a decline in hiring at colleges has her worried for her job.

But more than that, Koepnick worries about those less well-off than herself — including her students.

“What’s coming on the horizon is just going to desperately affect people,” she said. “If I need stimulus money to pay my electricity, how are other people surviving?”


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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