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‘There’s no end in sight.’ Millions fear loss of unemployment benefits amid pandemic

When the coronavirus began spreading throughout the U.S. in March, Lisa Mistretta, 52, a private home caregiver for hospice patients, was given an impossible choice.

“If you work, and catch [COVID-19], you’re going to be 6 feet under,” Mistretta recalls her doctor saying to her after one of her patients contracted COVID-19 and died. Mistretta has an inflammatory lung disease and bullous emphysema — comorbidities that put her at risk for experiencing serious complications from the virus. But, she also needed to make a living. By March 13, as the U.S. began to shut down due to the pandemic, Mistretta made the decision to prioritize her health and quit her job.

Today, Mistretta remains one of an estimated nearly 15 million Americans who are unemployed or have lost work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them have been out of work far longer than legislators might have imagined when signing initial relief packages into law this spring; according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 4 million report being out of work for more than half a year.

While the economy has regained some stability from an initial pandemic recession, experts are predicting a difficult winter for both infection rates and financial fallout. Jobless claims rose for two straight weeks in November and remained high at 712,000 last week, though experts caution those numbers don’t capture people for whom benefits have expired, or who don’t qualify for relief but still have trouble meeting basic needs. With additional federal unemployment benefits set to run out on Dec. 26, 12 million people who receive benefits from one of two federal programs could be without any aid at the end of the year, according to a study by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

This week, President-elect Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders expressed their support for a bipartisan $1 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, but emphasized that if the bill passed, they would seek additional aid in the new year. Congress has until Dec. 11 to reach a deal on a new spending bill.

In interviews with the PBS NewsHour, people who have remained unemployed for months said they were worried about covering daily living expenses, especially food and housing, and being forced to choose between earning an income and protecting their health. They expressed frustration with lawmakers for delaying relief while millions struggle to survive.

“I just had to go apply for food stamps because we have no other income coming in without the stimulus,” says Mistretta, the sole provider for two teenaged daughters, who started receiving those food stamps in October. “You can’t live off $276 a week for three people and pay all your bills.”

The $2 trillion CARES Act Congress passed in March included, among other relief measures, three provisions to boost financial support for jobless Americans. One, which provided an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, expired at the end of July. Another provision has allocated emergency unemployment assistance for workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic but do not qualify for their state’s unemployment benefits, such as those who are self-employed or work on a freelance basis. And a third program expanded state unemployment benefits for jobless Americans by 13 weeks. Both of these programs are set to run out before the end of the year.

Despite multiple attempts to reach a deal on more aid for workers, the discussions between members of Congress have been on hold indefinitely. Negotiations opened up again somewhat this week after top Democrats signaled their support for the bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal, a $908 billion bill that would establish $300 a week jobless benefits and revive “paycheck protection” loans for small businesses, among other conditions. But the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has not endorsed the bipartisan plan, instead encouraging lawmakers in his party to support a smaller, $550 billion proposal.

“The reality is that aid is seldom sufficient to keep people financially solvent,” said Mark Hamrick, the Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Economic Analyst at Bankrate. “And so there has been a cost to the failure of elected officials in Washington to enact further legislation.” Hamrick said the pandemic had exposed the flaws in America’s “wholly inadequate” social safety net, particularly because many of the workers that have been hit hardest by the recession — such as service workers in the food industry, leisure and hospitality, and retail — were already living paycheck to paycheck in the first place. Even before the COVID-19 crisis in 2019, three in 10 Americans said they could not cover three months of expenses by any means if they lost their primary source of income, according to a Federal Reserve report.

In a survey taken by the Census bureau from Oct. 28 to Nov. 9, 36 percent of Americans surveyed said they had difficulties paying for basic household expenses because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The longer we wait, potentially the higher the cost to the economy and…the higher the cost of what you’ll have to do eventually,” Hamrick said of the stall on additional federal relief.

Andy Stettner of the Century Foundation said it would be “unprecedented” if Congress did not extend unemployment benefits amid the ongoing pandemic. “Even in the 1980s, when there were a lot of cutbacks in social programs, there still was…a national extension of [unemployment] benefits” he said. Recessions that have taken place since the Great Depression have lasted an average of 15 months, and the most recent one from 2007 to 2009 lasted a year and a half, leaving long-term economic scars — including lower wages and increased debt — on American workers.

In the meantime, inequities that have long existed in the United States are being exacerbated by the pandemic. Low-wage, non-white workers have been disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and its subsequent recession. And overall, those who said they were having financial difficulty during the pandemic were more likely to be Black or Hispanic, have lower-wage jobs or lack a college degree, according to Pew Research. “This really has created sort of a nation of haves and have nots,” Hamrick said. “Many people are doing absolutely well, in terms of their personal finances right now. But the flipside of that is the many people who are struggling and that also serves to further exacerbate the political divide.”

“I’m really freaked out about the amount of debt I’m incurring. There’s no end in sight. I can’t pay anything down right now,” said Alexis Hackney, 42, who kept her primary job as a program coordinator for a university but no longer drives for rideshare services, which she used to do each weekend and three times during the week.

Because she did not lose her primary job Hackney said she did not bother applying for unemployment. She was also overwhelmed at the prospect of applying for aid in Georgia after family members tried with no success. While she received the first $1,200 stimulus check allocated by the CARES Act, her 20-year-old son, who has autism and had not held a job before, did not. She said she was “dumbfounded” to see Congress going on holiday break “when bread lines are getting longer and people can’t pay all their bills,” without a second round of stimulus on the horizon.

“Unemployment insurance should be the thing that helps keep people afloat, and the system can’t even deliver it,” said Judy Conti, the government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). She said that many state unemployment offices were ill-equipped to deal with the sudden surge in claims that came in after March. From technical glitches to backlogs to delays, state unemployment offices experienced a myriad of problems that made it harder for Americans to access benefits. “We’ve got programming in languages that are the computer equivalent of Latin,” Conti said. “The neglect has come home to roost.”

For New Yorker Derrick Monroe, the delayed second relief bill is not only proof of a serious disconnect between politicians and the reality unemployed Americans face, it reveals what he describes as an “entire absence of empathy” at a time where “it’s needed the absolute most.”

“I wish [politicians] could understand what fear feels like,” said Monroe, who has been unemployed since March 12 due to the pandemic. “I wish they could understand what uncertainty feels like. I wish they could understand what it feels like to be at the disposal of someone in their position, being able to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and look at people’s daily lives.”

Before the pandemic, the Broadway theater where Monroe worked as an usher had only closed four times in history, and never for more than a few days, even in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. At first, employees were told the theater would reopen in September. Then September became January, and now, any kind of reopening has been pushed back to June. With 15 years of performing arts experience, Monroe is not prepared for an online job. He started part-time classes, hoping to return to school full time — to study nursing or highly infectious diseases, plans he had before the pandemic — if he can secure the necessary financial aid. Relying on his savings and state unemployment, Monroe said he is making less than a third of what he was making per week before COVID and he is barely able to pay half of his rent.

“My initial reaction was a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear. There was nothing positive about it,” he recalls. Eight months later, the fear and uncertainty remain, and Monroe like many others feel a second relief bill is vital. In a New York Times-Siena College poll released prior to the election, 7 in 10 voters said they supported a second stimulus package.

Others who have remained unemployed for months have had to reconcile leaving frontline jobs to protect their health and safety. Thirty-two year old Daniel Lawson contracted COVID-19 in March while working at a Trader Joes in New York City. Most workers at a higher risk of job loss due to COVID-19 are low-wage earners, and work in industries where jobs have often been deemed “essential” amid the pandemic, such as food service, transportation and child care.

“I was working basically a frontline first responder job that I never really signed up for,” Lawson said. Before social distancing guidelines and mask mandates, Lawson described the terrifying scene of thousands of customers that would come in and panic buy groceries. “I felt kind of like the rug of reality had kind of been pulled out from under me and like we were just kind of in freefall.”

Lawson, who has asthma, became “deathly ill” with COVID-19, he said, but could only be hospitalized on March 24 for a night because of the high demand for hospital beds. Lawson’s hospitalization came just before the city reached its peak of 1,566 hospital admissions per day the week of March 29. Government data analyzed by local news outlet The City determined that during the week of Lawson’s hospitalization, just 15 percent of the city’s ICU beds were available. Once a runner and competitive swimmer who frequented the gym, Lawson says he still struggles to climb stairs without losing his breath — eight months after his hospitalization.

Since his illness, he has not returned to work because he thinks his health is only about 60 to 70 percent of what it once was, and fears getting sick again might kill him. Over the months, Lawson was forced to sell his $15,000 investment portfolio, the funds of which are now depleted. He has also borrowed money from friends and set up a GoFundMe page to cover monthly bills. While searching for jobs where he can safely work from home, Lawson receives about $180 per week from state unemployment insurance, which will run out at the end of December.

“At this point, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know where the money for December rent’s coming from and I’m really petrified,” Lawson said.

According to NELP’s Judy Conti, unemployment insurance typically only covers about 45 percent of what a worker previously earned. The additional $600 a week allocated by the CARES Act was intended to help close this gap for many people, but has not been available to unemployed workers since July. Democrats and Republicans disagree on whether a flat fee is the best way to compensate weekly wages for unemployed workers — a plan proposed by Republicans over the summer would have reduced the weekly check to $200 before turning the matter over to state governments, with the intention of paying unemployed workers 70 percent of the wages they earned before losing their jobs.

Along with an end to federal unemployment benefits, the new year brings an end to another measure — the national eviction moratorium. As many as 21 million Americans were housing insecure before the pandemic and the eviction ban implemented in September prevented an estimated 40 million from losing their homes. Come January 1, back rent for any months of rent missed will be due, except in the few states or cities who have implemented their own eviction bans. While the threat of underpaying bills, being evicted, and having enough to eat are the main fears for some as we head into the holiday, 25-year-old Kelly Maere of Washington State expressed another concern.

“I am constantly paranoid that I’m doing something wrong,” Maere said about applying for unemployment. “That I’m not filling out the paperwork properly or that I’m going to do something the wrong way and then it’s going to have to come back and I have to repay back the things that have kept me afloat so far.”

Maere, who uses they/them pronouns, had been working at a catering job until they were furloughed due to the pandemic. In August, Maere and their coworkers briefly returned to work some hours at their boss’s newly opened bistro, only to be furloughed again at the end of October because business wasn’t strong enough. While Maere has been fortunate enough to receive unemployment, they feel guilty and confused about why their coworkers have not.

“I want to help them out,” they explain. “But me and my husband are just trying to stay afloat ourselves.”

Between March and August, the $600 stipend allowed them to cover monthly costs. Now they are relying on financial support from their husband and dipping into their savings. Maere says they haven’t made a payment on their student loans since March, and rent and car payments are the biggest burden financially.

“I have PTSD and pretty severe depression so during the first round [of furloughs], I increased my dosage because my depression was getting really bad, even though the fear wasn’t really bad,” Maere said. After their second time being furloughed this year, Maere’s application for an emotional support dog was accepted.

As 2021 approaches, Maere is mainly concerned with the desperate situations of other people- those with dependents and those not receiving unemployment or support from a family member.

During the first half of 2020, the service industry, goods-producing sectors such as manufacturing, and government were all hard-hit by job loss, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data. Workers of color and women were particularly hard hit by the crisis.

“I’m even more worried about the people that are in situations like I used to be,” Maere said, referring to a time when they were living in Florida unsure of where their next meal would come from. If things shut down again, I can’t imagine being where I was four or five years ago now. I don’t know where I would be or if I’d even be able to keep myself alive.”

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