Responding to Crisis: Marking One Year of COVID-19

Last March, few imagined that our community would still be grappling with the coronavirus pandemic a year later.

In many ways it seems the pandemic is nearing an end after this year of hardship and loss: vaccines for the virus are increasingly available, and cases have dropped to a point where North Carolina is easing activity restrictions. 

But we are only just beginning to understand the extent to which this virus has driven our neighbors to the margins of safety, economic security and family stability, laying bare the extreme inequities that have long existed in our community. 

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has spent the last year fighting for our community’s most vulnerable residents as COVID-19 upended daily life.

As we pass this milestone, we take stock of just how much we’ve fought to advance our mission of pursuing justice this past year.  

It’s work we do every day and have always done in our 50+ years of service. But COVID-19 has cast a glaring spotlight on the importance of our mission. 

Pursuing justice: It’s fairness under the law. It’s equal access. It’s meeting basic needs. And it’s making sure our neighbors are equipped to endure any crisis life throws their way, including a global pandemic. 

Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL. 

Over the past year we:

  • Addressed immediate issues related to agency closures in our local Department of Social Services (DSS), allowing for remote application for benefits and limiting terminations and state unemployment insurance systems to tackle issues stalling federal unemployment benefits.
  • Helped clients navigate individual economic stimulus payments and unemployment insurance programs.
  • Prevented illegal evictions and kept vulnerable populations safely housed.
  • Responded to critical needs for protective orders and intervention due to a sharp increase in domestic violence incidents while our courts were operating on a limited capacity.
  • Monitored the changes in Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs to ensure coverage is not disrupted for those who need them in our community.
  • Advocated for language and technological access on administrative applications for health, food and income benefits to ensure all who were entitled to assistance could receive it.
  • Assisted people who have lost their jobs and/or health insurance navigate Affordable Care Act health coverage options and Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs).
  • Ensured members of our community are not falling victim to COVID-19 related scams and losing their income.
  • Helped immigrant families understand the unique ways the pandemic impacts employment, housing, public resources, ICE activity and immigration courts.

Read on to learn more about the need for our services and our impact over the past year.

Meeting Exacerbated Needs

Days after the first cases were reported, we shifted to remote operations, equipping staff to continue our work as the need for help grew exponentially.

For our neighbors living on economic and health margins, the pandemic has further exacerbated their instability in extreme ways.

The need for our services before the pandemic:

  • More than two thirds of low-income households were experiencing at least one civil legal problem that significantly impacted daily life. These rates are much higher for survivors of domestic violence, immigrants, veterans, families, and parents of children with disabilities.
  • In Mecklenburg County, poverty, segregation, and income inequality have pushed residents to the sidelines, concentrating distress in family stability and fortifying barriers to economic opportunity.
  • Children born into poor families in Mecklenburg County are among the least likely in the U.S. to escape poverty.
  • About 300,000 Mecklenburg residents were eligible for our services.

Public agencies closed and delayed services just as newly unemployed individuals found themselves trying to piece together a semblance of stability navigating administrative and public benefits systems for the first time.

Those already depending on these systems (people with disabilities, children, seniors, veterans and their families) were desperate to prevent the illness, hunger and homelessness that could result from losing Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other benefits.

The combined effects of racial, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias create multiple barriers for people of color and women as they navigate institutions where entrenched disparities remain the status quo.

This clear intersectionality has yielded disproportionately negative impacts for people of color and women during the pandemic. Because of this reality, we have continued to identify and address systemic racism while fighting to ensure equal access to assistance.

When Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) closed its offices to the public on March 18 with little notice, we fought to make sure our neighbors could still get benefits and services guaranteed to them under the law.

We made DSS agree to:

  • honor the date of phone calls as date of application for applicants to ensure they receive the maximum amounts of benefits allowed;
  • not terminate benefits for missed deadlines; and
  • allow late appeals, and to post clear signage in front of their buildings outlining this information.

The closure sent applicants to the agency’s call center which meant longer wait times for help.

We made sure people understood their eligibility for public benefits, helped them apply and navigate confusing administrative systems, all while ensuring their rights were protected. When programs and services changed, we kept the community informed.

We continue to advocate for extensions and flexibilities that are favorable to beneficiaries, while serving as a watchdog to ensure those policies are appropriately enforced and accessible to applicants of all backgrounds.

‘Things are smoother now.’

Food Insecurity

Before the pandemic, about 12 percent of Mecklenburg residents, including children, were considered food insecure according to Feeding America. The ongoing economic fallout has swollen that number to almost 16 percent who are on the brink of hunger.

In the last year, our staff assisted 371 people and their families with issues accessing food stamps (SNAP benefits), making sure they could successfully get the assistance they needed to remain stable and understood their eligibility for SNAP and other public benefits.

North Carolina was among the earliest adopters of Pandemic EBT (PEBT), which provides food support for families with children eligible for free or reduced-price meals while schools were closed. Though N.C. took many positive steps in creating this program, there have been hurdles and confusion in the implementation. We have been working closely with clients, partner organizations, and the state to monitor issues on the ground and communicate them to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the program works efficiently and families receive these critical benefits quickly.

Healthcare Access

Our health insurance navigators and call-back volunteers assisted over 1000 community members apply and select an affordable health insurance plan for their budget during Open Enrollment Nov. 1 – Dec. 15. Health insurance is critical to safety, stability, and health–particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.

Before the pandemic, one in six Americans had a civil legal problem that negatively impacted their health. We knew that unmet legal needs related to COVID-19 would dramatically worsen health outcomes.

Thirteen percent of Mecklenburg residents don’t have health coverage. More than 500,000 low-income people in N.C. have no options to get health care because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive financial assistance for health insurance.

COVID-19 forced frontline workers to weigh the risks of working to keep their families stable with the chance of falling critically ill and needing to seek medical care they couldn’t afford. Others lost health insurance benefits with their jobs at a time when access to health care mattered most.

Many who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 did not realize they had the option to apply for health care coverage through a Healthcare Insurance Marketplace Special Enrollment Period (SEP) 60 days after losing coverage. Consequently, many went without it due to their inability to afford private insurance.

Johanna Parra, coordinator of the Advocacy Center’s Health Insurance Navigator Project, was among the first in the nation to discover another option for those who were desperate to get coverage and have peace of mind knowing they could get care if they needed it.

Because all 50 states were under the COVID-19 pandemic national emergency declaration, eligible individuals could apply for coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace, also referred to as “Obamacare,” for a Special Enrollment Period through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA SEP).

Fighting for Equal Access

As soon as Congress passed the CARES Act to provide economic support and COVID-19 relief, there was confusion around the benefits included in the package.

Understanding the CARES Act and COVID Relief: Stimulus Payments and Unemployment Benefits

Families desperate for financial support needed help making sure they received stimulus checks (Economic Impact Payments) issued by the federal government.

Who was eligible? How would payments be distributed? What if payments didn’t arrive?

We answered these questions and more for our clients and the community to ensure everyone eligible for a payment could receive it.

Staff are now helping people address missing stimulus checks and other issues related to the CARES Act as people try to prepare their 2020 tax returns at a time when collection activities and massive job losses strain taxpayers. We are working to resolve these issues and push the IRS to offer specific remedies for various issues related to stimulus checks.

We are also working closely with clients and partner organizations to ensure the latest COVID-19 stimulus opportunities from the American Rescue Plan are understood and correctly received.

Resource guide: Managing unemployment and benefits
We partnered with WCNC Charlotte to produce a resource page to answer questions about stimulus payments and unemployment insurance.

By May of last year, more than one million North Carolinians had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. The volume of applications paired with implementing new assistance programs under the federal CARES Act has caused significant delays, making the process more challenging for applicants.

Working together, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte answered the calls of thousands of frustrated workers to guide them through the application process and appeals. Through direct action and systemic advocacy, these organizations ensured that those who had fallen through the cracks had access to the full payments they deserved.

Prior to the pandemic and historically, North Carolina’s unemployment system made it difficult for eligible residents to receive unemployment benefits, leaving workers with little to no support.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is focused on removing some of these barriers by focusing on unemployment insurance system reform, essential worker benefits, living wages, and promoting workers’ rights in a right to work state—all of which disproportionately impact People of Color (POC).

We are also monitoring how scams and multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) target unemployed and low-income individuals, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

NC Extra Credit Grant


The NC Extra Credit Grant program provides financial support for families struggling to meet the demands of educating and caring for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. For a parent living on minimum wage, $335 is more than he or she will earn in a week. We worked to spread the word to make sure that families who missed the first deadline didn’t miss this final application period and the chance at financial assistance.

Quick action and a strong partnership generated 24,946 applications submitted; $8 million distributed, in just 18 days.

On September 4, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the Extra Credit Grant: an additional $335 dollars in COVID-19 relief for N.C parents. While middle and high-income families automatically received the payment, low-income families had to apply through the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR).

These families had just 29 days to learn about the program and apply. Only 10,000 families did so during the initial application period.

Through a pro bono partnership, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and Robinson Bradshaw filed a complaint resulting in a court order on Nov.5, 2020 that reopened and extended the application period.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy created a website and extensive communication campaign entitled 335 for NC, which encouraged these parents to apply for the grant through December 7, 2020. More than 32,000 individuals visited the website.

In just 18 days, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Robinson Bradshaw reached hundreds of thousands of families and delivered 24,946 applications to NCDOR resulting in more than $8 million in aid made available to families who needed it most.

Keeping Families Safe and Protected from Exploitation

Housing Rights

State and federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures have been implemented and continued over the past year to keep people who couldn’t pay their bills safely housed during the pandemic, but they haven’t been enough to protect everyone.

As we watched infection rates rise, courts in North Carolina started working through backlogged foreclosures. Evictions began ramping up, exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing that existed well before the threat of coronavirus. Homeowners who had to take advantage of forbearance because they could not pay their mortgages will eventually have to repay extraordinary balances on their home loans, many of which cannot be modified. 

The Advocacy Center continues to work with families desperate to keep their homes and stay current on their bills to avoid homelessness and financial ruin. We are making sure people understand their rights and obligations with lenders to help them make informed decisions about their situations. We are also educating the community to make sure our neighbors do not fall victim to scams related to COVID-19.

‘The weight that was lifted off’

Entrepreneur, grandmother, personal shopper, caregiver, and church activist. These are a few of the hats that Mrs. C wears on any given week. She keeps copious amounts of to-do lists to keep herself, her family, and her business in order, a skill she says she learned from the staff at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

Immigrant families were already targets for exploitation before the pandemic. Fear of deportation, language barriers, and lack of traditional financial resources make it harder for immigrants to get assistance and leave them vulnerable.

Owners of substandard housing often rent to immigrants because the owners believe those tenants will be afraid to exercise their rights to habitable housing and to continued tenancy.

Traditional financing options are also often unavailable to immigrant families, which makes them easy targets for predatory financing options such as contracts for deed, options to purchase, installment sales contracts or lease with option contracts. These are enforced through eviction procedures and are complicated to defend without legal assistance.

Immigrants are also targeted for predatory sales of mobile homes, which can be substandard. These situations often involve predatory financing methods on land that is rented and are subject to eviction from the land, also requiring complicated defense.

The pandemic hit immigrants especially hard. Primary earners lost jobs as businesses shut down and those without legal status didn’t qualify for COVID-19 assistance.

“Because of the virus we lost our jobs and that put us behind on rent. And now it’s worse because my husband had an accident and our court date is tomorrow so we don’t know what we’re going to do … We don’t get help from anyone, those of us who are undocumented. A lot of us are going through this.”

– Advocacy Center client Ismar spoke to WFAE as her family faced eviction in July. Attorney Juan Hernandez was able to negotiate an agreement with the family’s landlord to prevent them from losing their home. Listen to the full story.

Thinking they could take advantage of families in desperate situations, landlords continued to threaten and illegally remove families from their homes.

At a time when our court system was operating on a limited capacity and resources for assistance were scarce, we helped our clients avoid homelessness, remain stable and exercise their rights.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy continues to find innovative ways to serve our community. In October, our Immigrant Justice Program partnered with Latin American Coalition to host a “curbside” clinic on the CDC Eviction Moratorium. Over thirty clients attended throughout the day to learn how to claim its protections.

We upheld their rights through our work, which included remedies such as cancellation of the contract, recovery of down payment or money paid above and beyond the fair market rental value, damages for unfair and deceptive trade practices, among others. We also conducted community education programs regarding the rights of immigrant renters related to their housing.

Domestic Violence Protection

While officials urged people to stay home to prevent spreading the virus, home wasn’t the safest option for many in our community.

Immigrant women also face additional barriers to escaping domestic violence or abuse, leaving them feeling trapped in abusive situations.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy helps low-income immigrants living in Mecklenburg County who are victims of domestic violence. A recent Allstate Foundation national survey found that 64 percent of Hispanic women say they know a victim of some type of abuse and 30 percent have personally been victimized.

Reports of domestic violence incidents increased significantly along with the need for legal assistance to get necessary protection early in the pandemic as people. Advocacy Center staff helped survivors and their families navigate administrative changes to get the protections they needed while our courts were closed.

Our Response Continues

We are all weathering the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.   

The past year has made it clear just how critical access to safety, security and stability is for everyone in our community.

But barriers that prevent equal access to these needs persist. And our current safety net is simply not wide or strong enough to support everyone who needs it.

Much like the Great Recession of 2008, the recovery for those hit hardest by COVID-19, those we serve, will take years. Some will never recover.

The need is everywhere. That’s why we’re here, fighting to help families not only stay afloat but also thrive. And we’re not going anywhere.

Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL. 

Find the latest COVID-19 Updates

Learn about our 2021 Advocacy Agenda

Support Our Work

Access to Justice: ‘Things are smoother now.’

Before COVID-19, Melody had worked at Showmars for 22 years, whipping up the daily specials.

When someone contacts Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for help, they are often struggling to stay afloat in a storm of crisis.

They have a big problem impacting their life but do not know how to fix it. Their problem is a symptom of various unmet legal needs that need to be addressed comprehensively to put that person on a better path.

That was the case for Melody when she contacted Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy last year. We first shared her story last fall.

Like many of our neighbors, she was already struggling when COVID-19 turned her life upside down.

As the primary financial support and caregiver for her family, she was trying to keep up with medical bills and fighting to keep her home as she faced foreclosure for unpaid property taxes from the mid-2000s left from her parents’ estate.

The Advocacy Center had helped her negotiate a payment plan with the county that included forgiveness of a substantial portion of the debt.

“When the pandemic hit, I lost my job,” Melody says. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘How am I going to make those payments?’”

Melody is used to being the one helping others. But when it came to piecing together the support her family needed to remain stable, she could not do it alone. 

Again, she called the Advocacy Center. We connected her with Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte to help her get expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act to support her family.

“I’ve worked all my life and never needed any benefits,” Melody says. “I didn’t really know how that stuff went.”

As part of our work, we learned that Melody’s sister, Wendy’s social security benefits had been terminated despite her disability. The Advocacy Center stepped back in to ensure she was receiving the benefits she was entitled to.

We also helped Wendy apply for food stamps to help their family through this crisis.  Melody would soon turn 65, so we also ensured everything was prepared for her to receive Medicare in a few short months. 

We checked in with Melody recently to see how things are going for her and her family one year into the pandemic.

It’s been hard.

She’s lost eight family members to COVID-19. In addition to not being able to physically mourn with her loved ones, she’s missed the big family get togethers held every year—egg hunts at Easter and a family reunion in September.

Melody says one thing she’s learned through her experience is “it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to not be okay.”

She compares the past year to sailing through a storm and credits the staff at the Advocacy Center for guiding her to calmer waters.

“Just knowing I had them there, I was able to stay in my boat,” she says. “Things are smoother now.”

Despite the past year, she says she is still looking for the silver lining in everything.

She hopes to return to her job whipping up the daily special at Showmars in the City of Charlotte Government Center, where she had worked for 22 years. And she dreams of one day owning her own food truck.

In the meantime, she’s glad to have her health, her family cared for and a place to call if she needs help.

She smiles every time she drives by the Advocacy Center and Legal Aid office on Elizabeth Avenue.

“Look at how much work the people in that teeny little building do!” Melody says. “The work they do, it’s needed. Because sometimes people just need a helping hand. It’s been a blessing.”

Melody, we’re glad we could help. Call us if you need anything.

Your support of the Access to Justice Campaign makes success stories like Melody’s possible. Consider making a contribution today!

What does the American Rescue Plan (third stimulus package) mean for the Affordable Care Act?

What you need to know about the Special Open Enrollment Period: 

1. Anyone can sign up for a plan now.  

It’s easy to sign up for health insurance if you recently lost your job or are self-employed. Even if you haven’t had insurance in a long time, this Special Open Enrollment Period may be for you!  

This is just like the annual Open Enrollment Period that happens in November and December. This Open Enrollment Period is open through August 15. If you enroll, your plan will start the first day of the following month. For more or to make an appointment with a Health Insurance Navigator, visit charlottelegaladvocacy.org/getcovered

2. You can change your plan if you want, but you will probably have to re-start your deductible. 

Through August 15, current enrollees can change to a new plan that will last for the rest of the year. But you should consider how much you’ve already paid toward your deductible and/or other out of pocket expenses when deciding whether or not to change your plan.  When you change plans, the amount you’ve paid already towards meeting your prior plan’s deductible and/or out pocket expenses may be reset to zero, and you would need to start over paying out of pocket expenses to reach the deductible on your new plan.  If you have made significant payments toward your deductible, check with your insurance company to see how it might impact you and what options are available to keep credit toward what you have already paid. 

What people need to know about the relief bill and its changes to the ACA: 

1. Lower monthly premiums: federal government subsidies will reduce the amount you have to pay for health insurance each month. 

The plan significantly increases premium tax credits for 2021 and 2022. These increased subsidies will substantially reduce or even eliminate monthly premiums for millions of people with Marketplace plans.  

On average, premiums will decrease by $50 per month. No one will have to spend more than 8.5% of their income on premiums. People with income below 150% of the poverty line (about $19,000 for a single person, $25,800 for a couple, and $39,000 for a family of four) will pay no premiums for some plans, including Silver plans with cost sharing reductions. 

Current enrollees, including those who recently enrolled through the 2021 Special Enrollment Period, will need to update their Healthcare.gov applications to get the new subsidies. These subsidies will be visible on Healthcare.gov starting April 1, and you will start receiving them on May 1. You will need to reselect your current plan for the changes to take effect to reduce your premiums for the remainder of the year. If you do nothing, you do not lose access to the tax credits, but you’ll get them as a refund when you file your taxes next year. When you file your taxes in 2022, you will get a reimbursement of the additional tax credits you would have qualified for from January through April 2021.  

Due to the SOEP, you may be able to change plans until August 15. If you qualify for these additional benefits, the new tax credits will be applied to your policy starting on May 1.  

If you purchase a plan now, you will get a refund if you go back into your Healthcare.gov application after April 1. 

2. Increase Subsidies for Those Who Have Lost Their Jobs 

The plan expands premium tax credits for people who receive unemployment benefits in 2021. This means that individuals currently unemployed are guaranteed to get the most generous subsidies on Healthcare.gov. It doesn’t matter what their actual year-end income is.  

These additional tax credits will be available starting this summer. 

3Protect Families from Having to Pay Back Subsidies 

In 2020 some people lost their jobs early in the year but later got new ones with higher earnings than they had expected. Others worked additional hours or received bonus pay as essential workers. The American Rescue Plan exempts low- and moderate-income families from having to repay the premium tax credit they received in 2020.  

4. Government will pay the cost of COBRA coverage 

If you lost your job and your job’s health insurance, you can use COBRA to keep your same health insurance plan. But instead of losing your employer’s contribution for your premiums, the government will pick up the bill. The government will pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through September 30, 2021. 

If you get a new job that offers health insurance before Sept. 30, you will lose eligibility for this no-cost COBRA coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. 

We encourage you to review your options with the Marketplace before signing up for COBRA, since plan options may be more attractive to you, depending on your particular situation.  

American Rescue Plan Offers Relief

Third COVID-19 Relief Package Passes as Pandemic Marks One Year  

Updated April 8, 2021

On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law as the largest and most recent COVID-19 relief package extending $1.9 trillion dollars in aid to families, businesses, nonprofits, and states. This third round of aid comes as Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy marks a full year fighting to support families under the pandemic.  

And our work is far from done. 

As we learn more about how the plan’s programs and funding will be implemented, we will update our website and social media accordingly. Please contact us at the appropriate numbers below if you or your family are struggling and need assistance.   

This list is not exhaustive, and the bill contains programs and funding not listed here.   

Here is what we know so far:  

ECONOMIC IMPACT PAYMENTS (STIMULUS CHECKS) AND TAX CREDITS 

The American Rescue Plan includes a third round of tax-free economic stimulus payments. 

In this version, the maximum payment is $1,400 per qualified individual or $2,800 for a couple. In addition, payments are now available for all dependents, including children in college and elderly relatives. Children of mixed-immigration status families with valid social security numbers are also eligible for the stimulus payments

The additional amount for dependents is significantly higher – $1,400 per eligible dependent. 

As before, economic stimulus payments are phased out, based on adjusted gross income. However, the upper threshold is reduced from $100,000 of adjusted gross income to $80,000 for single filers and from $200,000 down to $160,000 for joint filers. Payments for dependents are also phased out under these thresholds. 

The IRS expects to begin sending out payments in March. 

Third Economic Stimulus Payments Will Be Based on 2019 or 2020 Tax Returns: 

The American Rescue Plan provides that if your 2020 tax return is not filed and processed by the time the IRS starts processing your third stimulus payment, the tax agency will use information from your 2019 tax return. If your 2020 return is already filed and processed when the IRS is ready to send your payment, then your stimulus check eligibility and amount will be based on information from your 2020 return.  

If your 2020 return is filed and/or processed after the IRS sends you a stimulus check, but before July 15, 2021 (or September 1 if the April 15 filing deadline is pushed back), the IRS will send you a second payment for the difference between what your payment should have been if based on your 2020 return and the payment sent based on your 2019 return. 

If you have questions about the economic impact payments, contact a tax advocate at 980-202-7329   

Child Support Won’t Be Taken Out of Stimulus Checks

As with second-round checks, third stimulus checks will not be reduced to pay child support arrears. 

Wage Garnishment:

The COVID-Related Tax Relief Act prevented garnishment of second-round stimulus checks by creditors or debt collectors. They could not be lost in bankruptcy proceedings, either. The IRS also had to encode direct deposit second-round payments so that banks knew they could not be garnished. This is in contrast with the CARES Act, which did not provide similar protections for first-round payments. These protections are included for the third stimulus payment as well.

Under the American Rescue Plan, payments will be protected from reduction or offset to pay federal taxes, state income taxes, debts owed to federal agencies, and unemployment compensation debts. (As well as child support, as was discussed above.) However, as with first-round checks under the CARES Act, there will be no additional protections against garnishment by private creditors or debt collectors for third-round payments.

Earned Income Credit 

The American Rescue Plan expands the Earned Income Tax Credit for 2021, raising the maximum credit for childless adults from roughly $530 to close to $1,500, while also increasing the income limit for the credit from about $16,000 to about $21,000, and expanding the age range that is eligible by eliminating the age cap for older workers. 

Child Tax Credit

The American Rescue Plan includes changes to the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Under current law, the CTC is equal to $2,000 for each qualified child under age 17 who resides with you for at least six months of the year. Up to $1,400 of this amount is refundable, but the credit begins to phase out at $200,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $400,000 for joint filers. 

This credit will not go into effect until the 2021 tax year, which will be filed in Spring 2022.

The new law provides the following revisions for the 2021 tax year: 

  • An increase in the CTC to $3,600 per qualified child under age six and $3,000 for a child up to age 17. 
  • An additional $500 credit is available for dependent children in college who are under age 24. 
  • The credit is fully refundable. 
  • The phaseout begins at lower levels of $75,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $150,000 for joint filers. But many higher-income families can still claim the $2,000 credit subject to the prior phaseout rules. 

Finally, the IRS will make advance payments of the credit, beginning in July. The exact logistics of that process are still being worked out. 

Dependent Care Credits 

The American Rescue Plan substantially increases the Dependent Care Credit for many moderate-to-high income taxpayers. 

Presently, the Dependent Care Credit is available for qualified expenses of caring for children under age 13 to allow you (and your spouse, if married) to be gainfully employed. The credit is generally equal to 20 percent of the first $3,000 of qualified expenses for one child and $6,000 for two or more children. Thus, the maximum credits are $600 and $1,200, respectively. 

The new law enhances the Dependent Care Credit for the 2021 tax year.

It increases the maximum credit to $4,000 for one child and $8,000 for two or more children for households with an adjusted gross income of up to $125,000. But the credit will be reduced below 20% for those with an adjusted gross income of more than $400,000. Finally, the credit for 2021 is refundable. 

This credit will not go into effect until the 2021 tax year, which will be filed in Spring 2022.

Student Loan Forgiveness Credit 

If a debt is forgiven or cancelled, it generally results in taxable income to the debtor. However, in limited cases, debts of student loans that are forgiven may be exempt from tax. 

The American Rescue Plan effectively creates a tax exemption for student loans made, insured or guaranteed by the federal or state governments, as well as loans from private lenders and educational institutions. This does not apply, however, to loans that are discharged in exchange for services rendered.

This provision is effective beginning with the 2021 tax year and lasts through the 2025 tax year but could be extended or made permanent. 

Taxes on Unemployment Benefits  

The American Rescue Plan exempts from federal income tax up to $10,200 of unemployment benefits received in 2020 by a family with an adjusted gross income under $150,000. Normally, those benefits would be fully taxable. This tax break is intended to help taxpayers who might be blindsided by an unexpected tax bill on their 2020 returns. 

Please note that states can still tax unemployment benefits as income.

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE 

The American Rescue Plan extends the CARES Act’s unemployment insurance expansion through Sept. 6, 2021. Specifically, this act:   

Provides an additional $300 per week to on top of what beneficiaries are getting through their state unemployment insurance program. 

The first $10,200 of jobless benefits accrued in 2020 would be non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000. Please note that states can still tax unemployment benefits as income.

Extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides continued unemployment assistance to the self-employed, freelancers, gig workers, part-time workers and other individuals in non-traditional employment. It also increases the number of weeks of PUA benefits an individual may claim, from 50 to 79;  

Extends the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, providing additional weeks of federally-funded benefits to workers who have exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits. It also increases the weeks of PEUC benefits an individual may claim, from 24 to 53.  

Apply for unemployment at the Department of Employment Security website or call 1-888-737-0259. If you have questions regarding your application or how the new relief bill affects your unemployment benefits, call our hotline 980-256-3979 and leave a message to receive assistance in English or Spanish. 

EMERGENCY MORTGAGE, RENTAL AND UTILITY SERVICES 

The plan provides $25 billion for emergency rental assistance, including $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers for people experiencing homelessness, survivors of domestic violence and victims of human trafficking.  

The plan also sends roughly $20 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance and utility bills. There is $4.5 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help families with home heating and cooling costs. 

You can apply for utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or RAMP Charlotte

The plan does not extend the CDC Eviction, which is set to expire at the end of March or the federally-backed Foreclosure Moratoriums, which are set to expire at the end of June. Read more here

**Update as of March, 29, 2021** The CDC recently extended these moratoriums through June 30, and Gov. Roy Cooper has also extended the statewide residential eviction moratorium for N.C. through June 30.

Read more on how you can use the moratorium to prevent eviction here.  

FOOD AND NUTRITIONAL ASSISTANCE 

Millions of families across the country are struggling to put food on the table. This act addresses food insecurity by:  

  • Extending the current 15 percent increase in food stamp benefits through September 2021, instead of letting it expire at the end of June. 
  • Providing $880 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to help increase participation and temporarily improve benefits 
  • Allowing states to continue the Pandemic-EBT (PEBT) program through summer for families with children who qualify for free and reduced meals in school. The program gives families financial assistance to replace the meals the kids would have received if schools had not been closed due to COVID-19. 

If you need assistance with applying for SNAP, PEBT, or other public benefits, contact our Family Support and Healthcare team at 704-376-1600.  

CHILD CARE 

The plan includes a number of provisions to increase access to child care, including an additional $15 billion through Sept. 30, 2021 for the Child Care and Development Block Grant. 

It does not reinstate mandatory paid family and sick leave approved in the CARES Act. But it will continue to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily choose to offer the benefit through October 1, 2021. 

STUDENT LOANS 

Many federal student loans are continuing in forbearance, which is scheduled to end October 1. If student loan debt is forgiven after December 31, 2020, and before January 1, 2026, the cancelled debt won’t be taxed. 

FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FOR HEALTH INSURANCE 

More Help to Pay for Health Coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The American Rescue Plan provides financial assistance to help consumers get health insurance through the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace under the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare).  

Under the plan, consumers can receive increased premium tax credits to pay for coverage in 2021 and 2022, eliminating or reducing premiums for millions of current Marketplace enrollees to ensure that no one on the exchange spends more than 8.5 percent of their income on coverage premiums, regardless of their income level.  

This reduces the current 9.83 percent limit for people with income of 300 to 400 percent of the poverty line and establishes a new premium cap for Marketplace enrollees with higher incomes.  

Under the bill, people with income below 150 percent of the poverty line (about $19,000 for a single person and $39,000 for a family of four) would pay no premiums for a benchmark plan, after accounting for premium tax credits. Families who make more will pay a fixed percentage of income toward Marketplace health coverage.  

This will significantly reduce premiums for people who are currently eligible for financial help by increasing their premium tax credits. For example: 

  • A single individual making $18,000 would pay zero net premium rather than $54 per month (3.6 percent of income) and would qualify for the most generous subsidies for deductibles and other cost-sharing amounts.
     
  • A single individual making $30,000 would pay $85 rather than $195 per month in premiums (3.4 instead of 7.8 percent of income) and would qualify for a plan with reduced deductibles and other cost-sharing amounts. Or, with the bigger subsidy, the same person could opt to buy a gold plan with lower cost-sharing charges for $115 per month.
     
  • A family of four making $50,000 would pay $67 rather than $252 per month in premiums for benchmark coverage (1.6 instead of 6.0 percent of their income) and would qualify for generous cost-sharing reductions.
  • A family of four making $75,000 would pay $340 rather than $588 per month in premiums for benchmark coverage (5.4 instead of 9.4 percent of their income). A typical family could purchase a gold plan with lower deductibles and other cost sharing for about $440 per month (roughly 7 percent of income). 

An open enrollment period is open now through August 15 for anyone who wants to sign up for health insurance or change their current Marketplace plan. 

This open enrollment period gives people a new opportunity to get covered and take advantage of the financial assistance enacted as part of the relief package. 

Streamlines process to qualify for ACA subsidies 

The package also enhances premium tax credits (financial assistance) for people who receive unemployment benefits in 2021 by setting their Marketplace eligibility at a projected income levels that guarantee they will get the most generous premium tax credits under an ACA Marketplace plan, regardless of what their actual year-end income ultimately is. This includes people who have previously found themselves in the Medicaid gap. 

The package also eliminates the need to repay ACA subsidies from 2020. Some people lost their jobs early last year but later got new ones and saw higher earnings than they had expected. Others worked additional hours or received bonus pay as essential workers. Under this plan, low- and moderate-income families are exempt from having to repay the premium tax credit (financial assistance) they received in 2020. 

COBRA premiums covered 

Under the relief plan, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30, 2021 for those who lost employer-based coverage due to lay-offs or working reduced hours.  

A person who qualifies for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost COBRA coverage. Someone who leaves a job voluntarily would not be eligible either. 

Incentivizes States to Expand Medicaid Eligibility  

The plan incentivizes states that still have not expanded their Medicaid programs (like North Carolina) to expand eligibility for adults by increasing matching federal funds (raising the state’s Federal Medical Assistance Percentage by 5 percentage points) over two years. 

In North Carolina, this means more than 500,000 residents in the Medicaid gap (those who currently make too little to receive financial help for Marketplace coverage and make too much to qualify for Medicaid) would finally have access to coverage and the health care at a time when they need it most. 

This incentive would pump $2.4 billion new federal dollars into the state in just two years if N.C. is willing to take advantage of it. 

States choosing to expand would be required to maintain Medicaid coverage levels to receive the increase, including the newly established requirement to cover COVID-19 vaccine and treatment (see below). 

Covers COVID Testing and Treatment 

The plan also requires Medicaid and Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment without beneficiary cost sharing. Vaccines and vaccine administration costs would be matched at 100 percent until one year after the end of the Pandemic Health Emergency. States also would have the option to provide coverage to the uninsured for COVID-19 vaccines and treatment without cost sharing at 100 percent. Everyone should have access to COVID testing, treatment, and vaccinations regardless of income, insurance, or immigration status.  

Expands Access to Postpartum and Child Health Care 

The plan also gives states five years to extend their Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) eligibility to include pregnant individuals for 12 months postpartum. States choosing this option must provide the full Medicaid benefit for pregnant and postpartum individuals during the 12-month postpartum period. 

Increased Funds for Home and Community-Based Services 

The plan provides temporary one-year FMAP increase to improve home-and-community-based-services as well as FMAP increases for services provided through the Urban Indian Organizations and Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems. The bill also would provide funding to states for the creation of nursing home strike teams to assist in managing COVID-19 outbreaks when they occur. 

Option to create new Medicaid Program for Crisis Intervention Services 

The plan gives states five years to creates a new optional Medicaid covered service for adults by offering mobile crisis intervention services for adults experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder crisis. 

Have questions about how this plan impacts your coverage options or access to health care? Contact our Family Support and Health Care team by calling 704-376-1600 

Pro Bono Service Critical in Acquisition of The Advocacy Center’s New Building

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has purposefully been searching for a new building for over two years to accommodate our growing staff and programs. Jane Ratteree of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson represented The Advocacy Center in a real estate transaction in which we acquired the building that will be our new home beginning later this year. Ratteree’s service and expertise were invaluable to The Advocacy Center as we navigated this search and transaction process. Because of Ratteree, our future modern office space will represent the respect and esteem that The Advocacy Center’s staff and clients deserve. 

Jane Ratteree

The building’s transaction was complex. The seller was an international organization with its headquarters in Florida and officers in Puerto Rico. In order to make the properties function as a coherent campus once legally separated, Ratteree negotiated and executed a reciprocal easement agreement with multiple provisions. The property also included an access easement on adjoining land that needed to be preserved for both properties.

Ratteree contributed over 200 hours of her time to this effort. Ratteree’s work will facilitate the creation of The Advocacy Center’s future home that will enable it to better serve the community for years to come.

Ratteree’s commitment to serving low-income families in North Carolina through these complex projects demonstrates the her innovative and comprehensive approach to pro bono service. She went above and beyond to ensure the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community has equal access to justice and civil legal aid. We applaud her creative leadership of non-traditional pro bono initiatives and hope that Ratteree and efforts inspire others.

Do you have an innovative pro bono project or idea that bolsters legal resources in creative ways? Contact Meghan Rankins at meghanr@charlottelegaladvocacy.org.

VITA Offers Free Help Filing 2020 Taxes

The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is available by virtual appointment through tax season to help eligible residents file their taxes.   

If your household income in 2020 was $57,000 or less, you could qualify to have your taxes prepared and submitted through this program.  

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s VITA services will be offered virtually and securely by IRS certified tax preparers, using Adobe Scan, Google Duo, Verifyle, and Zoom to complete returns.  Learn more and register for your free appointment.

An in-person VITA site is open at the Dellwood Center in Huntersville by appointment only until April 10. Learn more and make an appointment

VITA ofrece servicios gratuitos de preparación de impuestos locales 

El programa de Asistencia Voluntaria de Impuestos sobre la Renta (VITA por sus siglas en inglés) del IRS está disponible mediante cita virtual durante la temporada de impuestos para ayudar a los residentes elegibles a presentar sus impuestos. 

Si el ingreso de su hogar en 2020 fue de $ 57,000 o menos, podría calificar para que se preparen y presenten sus impuestos a través de este programa. 

Debido a las restricciones de COVID-19, los preparadores de impuestos certificados por el IRS ofrecerán los servicios VITA de este año de manera virtual y segura, utilizando Adobe Scan, Google Duo, Verifyle y Zoom para completar las declaraciones. Obtenga más información y regístrese para su cita gratuita.

Un sitio de VITA en persona está abierto en el Dellwood Center en Huntersville solo con cita previa hasta el 10 de abril. Obtenga más información y regístrese para su cita.

NC Extra Credit Grant Program

Feb. 16, 2021, Update:

Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed a COVID-19 relief bill that extends the deadline for parents to apply for $335 NC Extra Credit grants. 

The $335 checks are intended to offset parents’ virtual schooling and child-care costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were part of a previous coronavirus relief package, but there were leftover funds after more than a million parents received their checks. This extension allows parents who qualified for an NC Extra Credit grant but did not receive checks in 2020 apply for the grant through May 31, 2021. 

The new law extending the NC Extra Credit Grant program through May 31, 2021 only applies to eligible individuals who have NOT received the $335 grant. If you have already received the $335 grant, you are not eligible under the new law.

The application for the NC Extra Credit Grant will only be available on the NC Department of Revenue website, but we do not know when.

Sign up for an Extra Credit Grant alert, and we will send you an email when the application is ready.

Who is Eligible?

North Carolina families with qualifying children who were 16 or younger at the end of 2019 who did not already receive the $335 check from the NC Department of Revenue.

Qualifying individuals who were not required to file a 2019 state tax return and have NOT already received the $335 grant.

Eligible individuals who filed a 2019 state tax and did NOT receive the $335 grant. This includes individuals who suffered from a tax preparation software error that resulted in their 2019 NC tax return not including their qualifying children. 

Ready to file your 2020 tax return?

Here are five things to keep in mind this tax season:

1. The tax filing season is February 12th, 2021 through April 15th, 2021

Update

The federal tax filing deadline has been extended to May 17, 2021. The filing deadline for state taxes in North Carolina is also May 17.

The Internal Revenue Service announced that the nation’s tax season will start on Friday, February 12, 2021, when the tax agency will begin accepting and processing 2020 tax year returns.

The February 12 start date for individual tax return filers allows the IRS time to do additional programming and testing of IRS systems following the December 27 tax law changes that provided a second round of Economic Impact Payments and other benefits.

Start collecting your tax documents and preparing your tax return today!

2. Many families can file for free using IRS Free File

The IRS Free File Program is a partnership with tax filing software leaders who provide their brand-name products for free. There are two ways to file your return online for free:

  • Traditional IRS Free File provides free online tax preparation and filing options on IRS partner sites. Only taxpayers whose adjusted gross income (or AGI) is $72,000 or less qualify for any IRS Free File partner offers.
  • Free File Fillable Forms are electronic federal tax forms you can fill out and file online for free. If you choose this option, you should know how to prepare your own tax return. It is the only IRS Free File option available for taxpayers whose income (AGI) is greater than $72,000.

Learn more at https://www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free

3. Eligible people who didn’t receive stimulus payments can claim them with the Recover Rebate Credit

Economic Impact Payments (EIP) are referred to as the Recovery Rebate Credit (RRC) on Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR. You may be eligible to claim your EIP through the RRC if you are a recent college graduate, were claimed as a dependent on a 2019 tax return but will file independently on your 2020 tax return, are incarcerated or were recently incarcerated, or missed the Nov. 21 deadline to use the non-tax filer tool to claim your stimulus check.

4. You can deduct up to $300 in charitable donations without itemizing

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted last spring, includes several temporary tax changes helping charities, including the special $300 deduction designed especially for people who choose to take the standard deduction, rather than itemizing their deductions.

Under this new change, individual taxpayers can claim an “above-the-line” deduction of up to $300 for cash donations made to charity during 2020. This means the deduction lowers both adjusted gross income and taxable income – translating into tax savings for those making donations to qualifying tax-exempt organizations.

5. 2019 incomes can be used to determine your Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps low- to moderate-income workers and families get a tax break. If you qualify, you can use the credit to reduce the taxes you owe – and maybe increase your refund.

You may claim the EITC if your income is low- to moderate. The amount of your credit may change if you have children, dependents, are disabled or meet other criteria.

If your earned income was higher in 2019 than in 2020, you can use the 2019 amount to figure your EITC for 2020.

VITA Offers Free Help Filing 2020 Taxes

Biden Implements 100 Day Moratorium on Removal Proceedings

On inauguration day, the Biden Administration announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would “conduct a review of [all] policies and practices concerning immigration enforcement” to, among other things, “build fair and effective asylum procedures that respect human rights and due process.” Titled the “Pekoske Memo,” the announcement also requires DHS to provide recommendations for the issuance of revised policies as soon as possible and no later than 100 days.

The Pekoske Memo prohibits removal (deportation), for 100 days beginning January 22, 2021, of any immigrant who was present in the US before November 1, 2020. There are only two categories of persons to whom this moratorium does not apply. The first category includes persons who are terrorists, suspected terrorists or individuals who pose a national security threat. The second category is comprised of individuals who have stipulated to removal as part of a criminal disposition.

The Pekoske Memo further instructs DHS that, during the 100-day period beginning February 1, 2021, any actions taken by DHS that would be permitted outside of the removal moratorium be consistent with the priority of apprehending and removing immigrants only in the following categories: (a) terrorists, suspected terrorists or other individuals who pose a national security threat; (b) individuals who crossed the border after Nov. 1, 2020; and (c) non-citizens who have committed certain serious crimes as defined by immigration law.”

The moratorium will impact the vast majority of immigrants in the United States. However, we caution immigrants who have had contact with the criminal justice system to determine whether they might have stipulated to removal as part of a criminal disposition. A stipulation to removal as part of a criminal disposition disqualifies a person from eligibility for the moratorium on removal. Immigrants who have had contact with the criminal justice system and are worried about removal (deportation) should call Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for assistance in making this determination.

With limited exceptions, the Pekoske Memo provides a desperately-needed reprieve to immigrants who, for the last several years, have woken up to the daily realization that this day may be their last here. We celebrate the memo’s publication and look forward to the reforms that are underway at DHS!

You can find a full text of the Pekoskie Memo at: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/21_0120_enforcement-memo_signed.pdf

El Memo de Pekoske prohíbe la deportación por 100 días

El día de la inauguración, la Administración de Biden anunció que el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional (DHS) “realizaría una revisión de [todas] las políticas y prácticas relacionadas con la aplicación de la ley de inmigración” entre otras cosas, “construir procedimientos de asilo justos y efectivos que respeten los derechos humanos y debido proceso “. Titulado “Pekoske Memo”, el anuncio también requiere que el DHS brinde recomendaciones para la emisión de políticas revisadas lo antes posible y no más tarde de 100 días.

El Memo de Pekoske prohíbe la deportación por 100 días, comenzando el 22 de enero del 2021, de cualquier inmigrante presente en los EE. UU. antes del 1 de noviembre de 2020. Solo hay dos categorías de personas a las que no se aplica esta moratoria. La primera categoría consiste de personas que son terroristas, presuntos terroristas o personas que representan una amenaza para la seguridad nacional. La segunda categoría está compuesta por personas que han estipulado la deportación como parte de una disposición criminal.

El Memo de Pekoske también instruye al DHS que durante el período de 100 días que comienza el 1 de febrero de 2021, cualquier acción tomada por el DHS que se permitiría fuera de la moratoria de deportación sea consistente con la prioridad de aprehender y expulsar inmigrantes solo en las siguientes categorías: (a) terroristas, presuntos terroristas o personas que representan una amenaza para la seguridad nacional; (b) individuales que cruzaron la frontera después del día 1 de noviembre 2020; y (c) no-ciudadanos que hayan cometido delitos graves según lo definido por la ley de inmigración.

La moratoria afectara a la gran mayoría de los inmigrantes en los Estados Unidos. En cambio, nosotros advertimos a los inmigrantes que han tenido contacto con el sistema de justicia criminal que determinen si podrían haber estipulado la deportación como parte de una disposición criminal. Una estipulación de remoción como parte de una disposición criminal descalifica a una persona de la elegibilidad para la moratoria de deportación. Inmigrantes que hayan tenido contacto con el sistema de justicia criminal y están preocupados de la deportación son bienvenidos a llamarnos para obtener ayuda para tomar esta determinación.

Con limitadas excepciones, el Memo de Pekoske proporciona un respiro que tanto necesita la comunidad inmigrante que durante los últimos años se han despertado y se han dado cuenta este día puede ser el último aquí. Celebramos la publicación del memorando y esperamos con interés las reformas que se están llevando a cabo en el DHS.

Puede encontrar el texto completo del Memo de Pekoskie en: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/21_0120_enforcement-memo_signed.pdf

Our Call to the Biden Administration on Inauguration Day

In his speech “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. condemns consequences of a divided and inequitable society built from a long, tiring, and terrifying history of white supremacy and calls us to make “America one nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We have been given a precious and urgent moment to do so, which begins today, Inauguration Day. Time cannot resolve the divides in our nation, action must be taken now. The staff at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy urges the Biden Administration and our congressional leaders to pass and enforce legislation that brings us closer to “justice for all.” 

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have organized one of the most diverse executive cabinets that this country has had the privilege to know. We applaud their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and hope that this commitment influences and follows throughout the administration’s programs.  

Promises made in the campaign, such as upholding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), preserving family unity at the border, upholding the Affordable Care Act, reinvigorating consumer financial protections, providing support for families, and enhancing our pandemic relief efforts must become a reality. We acknowledge President Biden’s American Rescue Plan as a noble step toward combatting the current health and economic crises our country faces. However, we are far from the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and even further from a united, equitable, and just country.  

Focusing on these issues at the local, state and federal level will enable us to capture King’s and our own vision of “one America.” Through our work, we will continue to fight for the very things King advocated for in his speech: economic justice, the right to safe and affordable housing, quality education, access to healthcare, and racial equity. May today be the start of a stark shift in American politics and a continuance of our country’s reckoning with its past and steps toward true, genuine equality.