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$500 relief checks drain the bank

Just a few days after the launch of a state program to get $500 emergency relief payments into the hands of people waiting on unemployment benefits, Oregon has run out of money.

The program to distribute $35 million to 70,000 people through local banks and credit unions started Wednesday.

Late Friday morning, state officials announced the program would start winding down after all the money was either distributed or dedicated to Oregonians in need. Financial institutions that joined the effort were given final allotment caps for the day, then stopped accepting walk-in applications.

Previously scheduled appointments will continue through the end of the month, but new appointments will not be made, state officials said.

The money giveaway led to long lines at some bank branches. Rogue Credit Union and Umpqua Bank handled applications in Southern Oregon.

People waiting in line at a Rogue Credit Union branch in Ashland Thursday included a laid-off cabinet maker on the brink of having his utilities cut off, a mother who needed money to buy food for her children and a laid-off landscaper who now collects bottles and cans to buy food and pay the rent. The long line snaked around the building and through the parking lot.

The Oregon Legislature approved using $35 million in federal COVID-19 aid for the emergency checks.

“I want to thank the financial institutions that have stepped up in an emergency and are continuing to work so hard to get money into the hands of desperate Oregonians,” Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said. “We’ve said from the beginning that we know this is not enough money to help all of those in need. But we had to take action to get money directly to people as quickly as possible, and this is a tremendous example of Oregonians pitching in to help our most vulnerable.”

Courtney said long lines at bank branches throughout the state brought home the reality of the economic suffering, which has largely been happening behind closed doors.

“I knew it existed. Now I saw the faces. I saw the lines,” he said.

The money was for Oregon residents 18 and older who haven’t received all the unemployment benefits they’re owed and who have suffered financial hardship from COVID-19 restrictions.

The Oregon Employment Department hasn’t been able to handle the historic surge of unemployment claims triggered by restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said she talked to hundreds of people waiting in lines in the Portland area. She said the lines were a clear and stark reminder of what many Oregonians are experiencing.

“It was hard to tell people we ran out of money today,” Kotek said Friday.

She said some of the people in lines told stories about how the Oregon Employment Department still hasn’t processed their unemployment claims.

“We have got to get the unemployment benefits out the door,” Kotek said.

Meanwhile, many legislators are calling on the federal government to send more aid to states.

“These last couple days have put a spotlight on just how dire the need is all across the state,” Kotek said. “We have to get more money to help people. The federal government has the ability to make direct stimulus payments to Americans whose lives are in jeopardy and are not doing so. I find this incredibly frustrating and disappointing.”

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been at an impasse on another round of federal COVID-19 relief. They also haven’t been able to agree on resuming federal payments that augment unemployment relief from states.

A $600 weekly federal bonus for 30 million people receiving unemployment expired at the end of July.

Democrats want to continue the $600 jobless payments for the rest of the pandemic-induced recession.

Republicans say the payments create a disincentive for workers to go back to their jobs.

Courtney said this week’s distribution of the $500 relief payments through banks and credit unions was an example of the state government teaming up with the private sector during a time when the country is divided politically.

“We were just getting after it — all together,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A large line forms Thursday at Rogue Credit Union as people wait to apply for a stimulus checks.