Many Moab residents have struggled financially because of the economic impact of COVID-19 after missing out on the expansion of unemployment benefits that Congress approved with its CARES Act in March. Some of the struggles are unique to the local economy.
Many seasonal workers lost unemployment insurance payouts for weeks after Moab shut down three months ago because pending changes to the state’s unemployment system left them unable to collect the benefits the CARES Act had afforded them.
That changed on May 21 — a month after The Times-Independent reported the story — when Utah’s Department of Workforce Services announced that it had completed changes that afforded all workers to access the 13 extra weeks of benefits. Those benefits are now set to expire this weekend without intervention from Congress.
But there are still other Moabites who expected benefits that they have not received. Mike Coronella, who owns the private tour company Deep Desert Expeditions, said that he was expecting to start collecting unemployment when business completely evaporated in mid-March, but the amount he qualified for was much lower than expected: $64 per week.
He said the loan he got through the Paycheck Protection Program also wasn’t proportional to his need, and he quickly burned through the $4,000 he received.
Coronella said that, after conversations with the Utah Division of Workforce Services, he figured out that the reason he qualified for such a measly payout was not his level of income — sole proprietors like him were eligible to collect around $1,100 per week under the CARES Act’s expansion of unemployment benefits. It was because of his work with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, for which he collects an hourly stipend that adds up to around $4,000 per year.
Coronella said having a side gig was “screwing [him] over. Being in SAR is any ‘side job’ that a small business owner might have that throws the wrench in the plans.”
Although Coronella’s second job pays only a $4,000 stipend per year, depending on how many hours he spends in the field, it is nonetheless considered a job. That meant he did not qualify for the extra $600 per week provided by the CARES Act.
“It’s kind of frustrating, as you can imagine,” Coronella said. “To add insult to injury, it puts the county on the hook for the benefits instead of the national government.”
The county is responsible, Coronella maintains, because it is self-insured for unemployment — a policy that Grand County officials initially worried might be costly when the extra $600 per week was announced. However, federal aid allocated as part of the CARES Act has covered this cost for the county as well as the others that Grand has accrued because of pandemic-related furloughs and layoffs, according to Grand County Council Administrator Chris Baird.
Coronella said that he had spoken to people in the governor’s office, with Utah Rep. Carl Albrecht and later with U.S. Rep. John Curtis about how the CARES Act had left him behind. He asked whether there was anything to be done to change it.
A spokesperson for the Division of Workforce Services said that Coronella’s situation is a unique one not covered specifically by the CARES Act’s extension of unemployment benefits, confirming that he wouldn’t be eligible without a policy change.
Even if Coronella quit what is essentially a volunteer commitment to the search and rescue team, he would not be eligible for the full payouts he was expecting since he would be quitting from what is legally considered a job because of the $4,000 he receives annually in compensation.
“I’m screwed from every side around on this one, and it’s all because I tried to do the right thing,” Coronella said.
Nonetheless, Coronella said he would continue working for Grand County Search and Rescue and responding to calls for help.