Change is afoot in the Sunshine State.
Under Governor Ron DeSantis’s full Phase One reopening plan, restaurants in Florida were allowed to open at 50% capacity on May 18. Most major amusements parks are reopening in June.
Even with these major steps towards reopening the economy, it’s clear things will not be back to normal anytime soon for Florida’s hospitality industry. Nearly 2 million applications for unemployment have been filed in Florida. The Payroll Protection Act has helped keep some workers on the payroll but a Facebook survey shows that most small businesses won’t rehire the same employees. Some large chain restaurants have announced they will either shutter completely (Sweet Tomatoes) or close a number of restaurants (Steak ‘n Shake).
In this dire economic climate caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, here are 5 things every struggling restaurant, lodging, and travel & tourism small business and worker needs to know.
Number 1: Florida’s halt on evictions/foreclosures has been extended until June 2; the CARES Act offers longer protection for qualifying persons.
Gov. DeSantis extended until June 2 his executive order aimed at preventing foreclosures and evictions as Floridians struggle to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
The executive order was issued April 2 and had been set to expire May 17.
When the stay is lifted, there is likely be a flood of mortgage holders and landlords filing suit. This influx of new cases will delay hearings, buying defendants some time to raise or earn money to pay down their debt.
Some defendants will also have a defense under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act stops covered landlords from filing new eviction cases for nonpayment of rent beginning from March 27, 2020 until July 24, 2020. It also stops those landlords from charging fees and penalties related to nonpayment of rent. When eviction cases are allowed again, covered landlords must give tenants 30 days’ notice to vacate (leave) the home before filing an eviction case.
The CARES Act also applies to properties that have federally backed mortgage loans and federally backed multifamily mortgage loans. A lender or loan servicer may not foreclose for 60 days after March 18, 2020. Also, those having financial trouble because of the pandemic may request a forbearance for up to 180 days and can request an extension for up to another 180 days. Individuals must contact their loan servicer to request this forbearance. There will be no additional fees, penalties, or additional interest (beyond scheduled amounts) added to the account. No additional documentation is necessary to qualify other than a claim to have a pandemic-related financial hardship.
Number 2: Floridians must keep logging in to continue receiving unemployment benefits.
If you’re one of the millions of Floridians who have filed for unemployment benefits and still not received any benefits, you’re not alone. As of May 12, 2020, only 28 percent of applicants had received benefits, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). The DEO claims that some applications were incomplete, and some people aren’t entitled to benefits.
In Florida, individuals are entitled to 12 weeks of unemployment assistance. Through the CARES Act, Florida can increase that by 13 additional weeks but the State has not yet done so. We’ll be keeping an eye on this.
For now, the unemployed need to pay attention to a new requirement to log in at the state unemployment website every two weeks to “claim” benefits for prior weeks. This requirement began on May 10. If you don’t log in and confirm you’re still unemployed, you won’t continue receiving unemployment pay.
Number 3: Help is still available for small businesses and individuals.
For restaurants and other small businesses in Tampa, the One Tampa Relief program offers help to established businesses that were thriving before the pandemic. The relief program will provide direct payments for eligible businesses up to $4,000 for rent/mortgage; up to $1,000 for utilities. Round 2 of the program will begin June 1 for a 5-day pre-application period. Read more about it here: https://www.tampagov.net/relief-.
For small businesses in Pinellas County, the Pinellas CARES Small Business Grants assists local businesses that had to close or significantly reduce operations due to the pandemic and the resulting statewide orders to curb the spread of the virus. The program will offer $5,000 grants to small businesses for wages, vendor bills, rent/mortgage.
Also in Pinellas Country, individuals and families who have lost their jobs or significant income due to COVID-19 can receive one-time assistance paying overdue rent, mortgage and utility bills. Payments will be disbursed directly to the utility, mortgage or other eligible agency to which the individual bills are due. Individuals can apply for one-time assistance by contacting 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares: Text COVIDCARES to 898211. (The Tampa program has already paid out all of its funds.)
There are also some national initiatives that are helping unemployed service industry workers.
- The Southern Smoke Foundation (https://southernsmoke.org/fund/): offering emergency relief funds to anyone who can prove employment in the food and beverage industries for at least six months.
- CORE Gives (https://coregives.typeform.com/to/SnZmOQ): gives food to restaurant workers who are parents and who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- Hospitality Link is providing a free job matching resource for hospitality employees looking for work. JobGet is another app that helps hospitality workers find and apply for new jobs instantly.
And don’t forget that a number of companies stretched thin by the pandemic are hiring: Amazon, Shipt, and Instacart are among them.
Number 4: Debt collection harassment is illegal.
Hospitality workers struggling to pay their debts don’t have to put with harassment from creditors and debt collectors.
If you’re being called and no longer want to be bothered, tell them to stop calling. Be firm. You can also ask in writing for verification that you owe the debt.
Pay attention to whether your rights have been violated. Some common violations of debt collection law include:
- Calling you after you’ve told the caller to stop;
- Calling you too early, too late, or at a time when the caller knows it’s inconvenient for you;
- Telling your employer or another third party about your consumer debt;
- Pursuing you for a debt that is not yours;
- Telling you that you owe more than you actually owe;
- Misleading you about the actions they can take against you.
If your rights have been violated, a consumer rights attorney can help. You may be entitled to $1,000 in statutory damages, plus your attorneys’ fees and costs.
Number 5: There are limits on what creditors can take.
For hospitality workers who have had a judgment entered against them – likely before the Coronavirus crisis began – a creditor can’t take everything they earn or own. Debtors are entitled to various exemptions from collection. For example, you may be a head of household, who can claim your wages exempt if you make $750 per week or less. You’re entitled to a greater exemption as long as you never agreed in writing to garnishment above $750 per week. Also, creditors can’t take social security benefits, workers’ compensation, veteran’s benefits, pensions, life insurance benefits, and disability income benefits.
For Floridians who still haven’t received a federal stimulus payment, they need to make sure to request it by check, not direct deposit. It’s important to cash the check and keep the money out of the bank. A creditor can attach stimulus money deposited into the bank.
For Floridians who have yet to be sued for a debt, they may have defenses based on contract law, fraud, and/or failure to make necessary disclosures. Also, it’s sometimes possible to file a counterclaim for violation of debt collection laws.
Manta Law Can Help Struggling Tampa-Area Hospitality Workers.
If you’re a Florida resident who is struggling financially due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Tampa law firm of Manta Law can help you with debt collector harassment, garnishment defense, and more. Call us today to learn more about your rights and how we can help. We serve the greater Tampa Bay region, including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Wesley Chapel, Temple Terrace, Oldsmar, Town and Country, Largo, and Palm Harbor.