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‘It’s just senseless.’ Despite COVID relief, unemployed Americans still worry about paying their bills

Many people who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic are breathing a sigh of relief after President Donald Trump unexpectedly signed a bill Sunday that will extend unemployment benefits for an estimated 12 million Americans.

Yet even with a one-time $600 stimulus check and an 11-week extension of two key jobless programs, many people said they were worried about delays in benefits, which have plagued state unemployment offices since the start of the pandemic, and frustrated with politicians who they say are out of touch with the average person’s struggle to pay their monthly bills.

“It’s just crazy that it took all this time to do what they did. And then to me it’s like a slap in the face to give somebody $600,” said Brian Reese, a 58-year-old Army veteran who lost his job at a nonprofit this spring.

“I feel powerless … the last thing I want to do is accrue debt since I’m unemployed and waiting for Covid-19 [unemployment] adjustments,” said 57-year-old Mirna Herrera, a laid-off security worker, of the time it might take to see the money Congress has approved. “I don’t want to be a burden on my family having to ask for funding when everyone else has their own financial issues” because of the pandemic, she added.

Congress debated the latest relief package for months. In that time, jobless claims grew, and experts cautioned those figures did not capture people for whom benefits had expired or who did not qualify for aid but were still struggling to pay their bills.

Congress came to a last-minute agreement just before Christmas, less than a week before unemployment benefits were set to expire. But Trump delayed signing the bill, during which time two key unemployment programs lapsed, leaving millions of Americans without a week of benefits around the holiday. He threatened not to sign the bill, which he called a disgrace, because the stimulus checks were not large enough, calling on Congress to increase that amount to $2,000 — something many Republicans in Congress have opposed, though House Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged to take that request to the floor for a vote this week.

“It’s disheartening when the government, who’s supposed to be here to ensure our stability and our safety, appears to either not get it or have their priorities different than ours,” said Theresa D’Amico, a 52-year-old mother who had to quit her jobs to stay home to help her 14-year-old son, who has autism, attend school remotely.

The PBS NewsHour spoke to people across the nation about how unemployment has affected their lives, the latest Covid-19 relief package and what it means for their financial futures. Here are some of their stories.

Angela Retamoza, 56, of Santa Barbara, California.

Angela Retamoza
56, Santa Barbara, California

In 2008, when the U.S. economy fell into the Great Recession, Angela Retamoza lost her job and, as a result, her home.

“I did end up being homeless for a while,” she said. “It was scary, and it was very stressful. And so that keeps going through my head now.”

Retamoza was laid off in March from her job as an accounting assistant at a newspaper and hasn’t been able to find another job during the Covid-19 pandemic. She was receiving unemployment benefits up until three weeks ago, when the checks unexpectedly stopped.

She got a text message saying the government automatically submitted a claim for extended unemployment benefits, “but I haven’t heard anything in three weeks, so I haven’t had any income in three weeks,” she said.

Retamoza says she was able to save some money from the $600 in additional weekly federal benefits authorized in the CARES Act. That extra money was cut in half to $300 in July, but has been extended for another 10 weeks under the newest relief package.

Retamoza says if her unemployment benefits don’t start back up soon, she has enough saved to cover one month’s rent and utility bills. She’ll also try to stretch the $600 one-time direct payment Congress approved in the latest deal.

“I was a little disappointed in the $600. It’s something I’m sure everybody is grateful for, whatever is coming in, but I really don’t see a situation where $600 is going to help a whole lot,” she said.

Brian Reese (pictured at right), from Cincinnati, Ohio

Brian Reese
58, Cincinnati

As an Army veteran, Brian Reese is reluctant to criticize his country, but the latest debate over Covid-19 assistance has left him dismayed.

“I served this country proudly. I’m proud to be American, but I just can’t understand how you got two different political parties that just can’t seem to come to some type of agreement when it comes to the betterment of the American people,” Reese said. “I’m not saying you should give them a whole bunch of free money, but there are people out here who have lost their whole livelihoods.”

Reese lost his job this spring as a safety ambassador for a nonprofit development group in Cincinnati.

Since then, he’s been receiving unemployment benefits that barely get him by. After paying child support and rent, he has less than $75 left each week to pay his phone bill and buy groceries.

The stimulus check will help, but with the pandemic raging on and few job prospects as an older worker, he’s not sure how far it will go.

“It’s just crazy that it took all this time to do what they did. And then to me it’s like a slap in the face to give somebody $600,” Reese said, adding that wishes the payments were larger and more targeted to people who have lost money because of the pandemic.

Michael West, 60, of Huntington Beach, California

Michael West
60, Huntington Beach, California

Every day that unemployment benefits were delayed brought Michael West closer to a wrenching choice: lose his home in the middle of a pandemic, or return to a job that meant being exposed to the threat of COVID-19 as a high-risk person.

Before the pandemic, West was making a living as an Uber driver. “I was able to pay my bills,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t going to get rich, but I was doing OK.”

When restaurants in Southern California shut down in March, it meant an immediate dropoff in business. Meanwhile, he’d gotten an urgent warning. “My doctor told me that it was really not a good idea for me to continue to drive for Uber. I have Type Two diabetes and I have a heart condition. He said that really being in that high risk category, I needed to step away from that. So I did.”


Watch Michael West’s conversation with the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz in the video player above.

Since March, West has stayed as isolated as he can in his Huntington Beach apartment, which he shares with his son, who is 34 and has developmental disabilities. The aid provided by the first CARES Act kept him afloat, but money became a problem again after the $600 weekly payments stopped in July.

By Saturday, as federal unemployment benefits expired, West was out of savings and had no financial cushion to fall back on. “As of today, all that ends and I will have zero income,” West said. “And I’m going to be left with the choice, a difficult choice, do I become homeless or do I go back to work and put myself in a situation where I’m literally risking my life to try and keep a roof over my head?”

West didn’t have a contingency plan, besides hoping that Trump would sign the bill. “It feels like somebody that’s drowning, and somebody pulls up in a little dinghy and says, ‘Oh, you know what, I’d like to tell you to get in, but let me go get a better boat,’” he said. “Holding this whole process up for a $2,000 check, which is never going to come, while people lose their unemployment, they have no income at all, is just senseless, it’s just senseless.”

Mirna Herrera, 57, of Hallandale Beach, Florida

Mirna Herrera
57, Hallandale Beach, Florida

Mirna Herrera’s financial goal for this year has been to avoid going into debt.

“I’ve been paying my bills as I go. I turned off my power for the water heater, and I only turn it on when I need to heat up the water to shower because I have to live within my budget,” she said.

Soon, those measures might not be enough.

“I will have no choice. I have to make payment arrangements or use credit cards to make payments on utilities, borrow on credit cards in order to pay for medicine,” said Herrera, who lost her job working in security at the Port of Miami because of the pandemic.

Because Trump did not immediately sign the Covid relief bill into law, some Americans will likely see a longer delay in getting unemployment benefits. That could put additional financial strain on people like Herrera.

“I feel powerless because the last thing I want to do is accrue debt since I’m unemployed and waiting for Covid-19 [unemployment] adjustments, and I don’t want to be a burden on my family, having to ask for funding when everyone else has their own financial issues because of Covid-19,” she said.

Chonda McCoy, 43, of Troy, Ohio

Chanda McCoy
43, Troy, Ohio

Chanda McCoy was used to being a provider for her children and grandchildren in Troy, Ohio.

But that all changed when she was one of the first to be let go from her job at Dayton International Airport in March. Now, she can barely afford her own expenses, let alone to help her family. “I feel like I failed them, to be honest with you.”

The stress of unemployment has taken its toll, and she’s started seeing a counselor to deal with the anxiety caused by her financial precariousness and uncertain future.

“I’m very depressed,” she said. “I feel like my life changed in the blink of an eye.”

Speaking with the NewsHour on Sunday night, just hours before Trump suddenly signed the Covid relief bill, McCoy bounced her baby grandson on her hip and said she wasn’t sure how any of her bills would be paid. “I’m very worried about losing my home, very worried about going without heat, water. I’m worried about not being able to have my vehicle.”

On Monday morning McCoy said she was relieved that unemployment benefits and additional help were on the way. But she wasn’t sure when that would happen; she said a representative in Ohio’s unemployment office couldn’t give her an answer as to when she would next receive the unemployment insurance.

As she waits for badly needed aid, she says this Christmas had been unlike any other.

“Because I was laid off, it wasn’t like it usually was … it wasn’t my normal,” she said. But she says that though there was a “little bit of sadness” over the downsized holiday this year, her grandchildren were happy.

Theresa D’Amico, 52, of Turnersville, new Jersey with her 14-year-old son

Theresa D’Amico
52, Turnersville, New Jersey

“Anger” and “desperation” are the two words Theresa D’Amico uses to describe how she felt as she watched the political back and forth over the Covid-19 relief bill unfold in recent days.

“It seems that certain people don’t take it seriously or they’re really that far out of touch that they don’t realize this is people’s lives and families are being really stretched to the limit,” she said.

When the pandemic hit and schools were shut down, D’Amico decided to stay home from her two part-time jobs to care for her 14-year-old son, who has autism. When he was in school, a teacher’s aide helped him stay on task throughout the day. Now, that job falls to D’Amico.

“He needs constant redirection so that’s why me going out to work and leaving him to do [school] on his own really wouldn’t work,” D’Amico said.

D’Amico says her partner’s job was not affected by the pandemic so she is fortunate to have someone else to rely on, but she’s still had to cut back on extra expenses and is uncertain about what the future holds. In addition to the unemployment she has been receiving, she took 10 weeks of paid leave made possible under the CARES Act from one of her part time jobs. That has since run out.

“Our backs are up against the wall, and it’s disheartening when the government who’s supposed to be here to ensure our stability and our safety, appears to either not get it or have their priorities different than ours,” she said.

Ryan Kim, 49, from New York City

Ryan Kim
49, New York City

Ryan Kim is used to going without pay for weeks at a time. As an actor living in New York City, he pieces together gig work to make ends meet. But ever since the pandemic started, work is nearly impossible to find.

“I don’t know if my performing jobs will come back. I’m not really banking on it,” he said.

Kim’s savings are dwindling to the point where he has entertained the idea of leaving acting altogether and trying to start a new career — a daunting prospect as he enters his 50s.

He’s hopeful that the new bill will offer some additional financial support but says he was “completely frustrated” watching the political haggling on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

“They could have done it months ago,” Kim said.