‘We shouldn’t have to beg’: Americans struggle without unemployment aid as Congress stalls on extending benefits
Jessica Menton, USA TODAY
Published 12:01 a.m. ET Aug. 25, 2020 | Updated 12:57 a.m. ET Aug. 25, 2020
Here's why there's a backlog of claims for unemployment and why it's only getting worse.
Cody Waymack and his wife are struggling to survive with their two children after the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits expired in late July. Now the family is living off each of their weekly state unemployment checks: $96 and $48.
Cody, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was just four days into his new job as a pipe fitter at a chemical plant when he was laid off in March. His wife, who worked at a sandwich chain, initially had her hours slashed and eventually was laid off, too.
It came as a shock when the couple found out they don’t qualify for the new $300-a-week federal jobless aid through President Donald Trump’s executive action. He issued the memorandum this month after Congress failed to strike a deal on another coronavirus relief package.
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“It was a heartbreaker,” says Waymack, 32, who has seen his apartment complex post eviction notices on his neighbors’ doors this month. He’s worried his family will be next because they can’t afford to pay their rent come Sept. 1.
Waymack is angry that Congress didn’t extend the $600 federal supplement before going on recess until Labor Day.
“Congress has failed us. I can’t even afford groceries,” says Waymack, who added that he doesn’t have enough in savings to fall back on, or a 401(k) plan to tap into for emergencies. “They don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from or whether they’ll get evicted. They’re still getting paid while we’re begging for help.”
Americans hold Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill responsible for the lapse in jobless aid, according to a recent report from Morning Consult, a market research firm. Roughly 35% of voters blame Republicans for the expiration, the same share who blame Democrats, while another 27% hold Trump accountable.
Left out of Trump’s $300 jobless aid
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Unemployed workers who receive less than $100 in state benefits won’t receive the extra $300 because their weekly benefit would fall short of triggering the state match to get the federal funds.
The Waymacks are among a group of at least 1 million jobless people, or about 6% of individuals on basic state unemployment, who receive less than $100 a week, according to Eliza Forsythe, a labor economist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
They both applied for traditional unemployment a week before the CARES Act passed in late March, which had enacted Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for Americans who had lost their jobs or income because of COVID-19.
Louisiana’s minimum weekly benefit amount for PUA is $107, but because Waymack had applied for regular state unemployment, his weekly benefit falls below the $100 threshold to qualify for the extra $300 in federal aid even though he had received the additional $600 on unemployment. He isn’t able to reapply for PUA, he says.
Some Americans feel left behind
The stock market is back at records, the housing market is strong and consumer spending is improving after the coronavirus pandemic clobbered the global economy in the spring. But not everyone is feeling the recovery.
Millions of jobless Americans have gone nearly a month without additional unemployment aid after Republicans and Democrats in Congress failed to reach a deal on another coronavirus rescue package this month.
The lapse in benefits comes at a critical time for the more than 25 million out-of-work Americans who are struggling to cope without the additional aid, forcing some to yank money from their nest eggs or sink further into debt to make ends meet after a historic wave of job losses.
On Aug. 8, Trump signed an executive action calling for a $300-a-week federally funded jobless benefit for workers who were unemployed because of the pandemic, cutting in half the $600-a-week benefit that expired at the end of July.
But the measure has run into delays after reprogramming issues with state unemployment systems. States have to reconfigure their systems to distribute the money, which threatens to result in long delays, experts warn. That’s left many Americans worried about how they will pay their bills after Congress adjourned without coming to any deal on the unemployment program or a larger emergency stimulus package.
More than half of states have been approved for the extra $300 in unemployment insurance. So far, Arizona is the only state that has distributed the claims. States applying for the federal grants will get an “initial obligation of three weeks of needed funding,” according to a recent memo issued by FEMA. The agency will make additional disbursements to states on a weekly basis.
“It’s going to take states varying times to implement this. It could take another month before most people get paid, and there’s only a finite amount of funding,” says Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project.
“States that are faster at setting this up could use up the funds before the slower ones, which creates another big issue because states with the most unstable systems also tend to be in the South and those with the highest populations of Black and Latinx workers.”
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The Trump administration is tapping up to $44 billion in FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund for the $300 in aid. But the amount could be cut at any moment if the funds are needed for their usual purpose of natural-disaster relief, experts say. That further complicates funding in the midst of hurricane season, with Tropical Storms Laura and Marco approaching the Gulf Coast together this week. And California is wrestling with an outbreak of wildfires.
With Congress facing a stalemate on a new amount for jobless aid, proponents of the enhanced aid argue it has provided a vital lifeline for out-of-work Americans who have struggled to put food on the table, pay their rent or mortgage and care for their children amid the global health crisis.
Democrats wanted to extend the full $600 benefit, but some Republicans argued it was a disincentive for some Americans to return to work because they would receive more in unemployment than they earned on the job. Republicans wanted to bring the benefit down to $200.
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“The question we’re really debating is how much suffering we think American households need to go through during a recession,” says Kathryn Edwards, an associate economist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy think tank.
“When you’re defining someone’s unemployment benefits, you are deciding how much you think they should live on. For someone on a meager amount of benefits, those consequences can be catastrophic.”
Even an additional $600 a week didn’t achieve full wage replacement in some high-cost states and cities. State unemployment programs cover only about 41% of someone’s lost wages, according to the Brookings Institution.
The cut in federal benefits to $300 would reduce weekly payments from $908 per person to $608 on average nationwide, according to The Century Foundation.
Todd Kunis, 52, who resides in Murrieta, California, pictured with three of his daughters. (Photo: Todd Kunis)
Millions await $300 in federal aid
Todd Kunis, a father with five daughters, is also struggling to get by on unemployment. He has depleted his savings to make up for his lost wages after the extra $600-a-week unemployment expired. Since then, he has racked up $3,000 in credit card debt to help his family make ends meet.
Kunis, a manager at a corporate meeting and events company in Murrieta, California, was embarrassed to apply for jobless aid for the first time in his life after he was furloughed from his job in March, a business where he has worked nearly three decades. The logistics of having large groups of people gathering face-to-face in a health crisis has left him uncertain when he’ll return to work in that industry, if ever.
His wife, a teacher, took a temporary second job this month with the U.S. Census Bureau as an enumerator. She’ll go door-to-door to collect household and demographic information to help her family cover their bills while they await a new round of $300-a-week federal benefits, which experts have warned could take weeks before hitting people’s bank accounts.
“I wake up in the middle of the night scared, wondering what’s going to happen. I can’t just change the trajectory of my life and career at my age,” says Kunis, 52, who worries that he’ll sink further into debt.
Now that the $600 in weekly aid has ended, Kunis is getting $520 every two weeks on unemployment. He had been receiving about $1,700 in that span before the benefits expired. The state was approved for the $300 in federal aid, according to FEMA, but it’s unclear when people will get the money.
“We were incredulous when we found out Congress went on vacation while millions of people like my family were having to decide on whether to pay for food, rent, water or power bills,” Kunis says. “We shouldn’t have to beg for help like this, but we are at that point now.”
Americans stress about retirement, debt
Suzette Swaby, 48, was forced to tap into her 401(k) after waiting for her unemployment aid to trickle in this month. She filed for unemployment in May after the travel tour company she worked for in Orlando, Florida, laid off employees because of the pandemic. It took nearly two months before she received any money.
Now she has fallen behind on her car payment this month after her rent increased at the same time as the extra $600 supplement expired.
Swaby was already grappling with how to pay her bills even with the additional $600 because it was still less than her salary, she says. In Florida, the state unemployment maximum is $275 a week. She’s getting $247 a week after taxes, which isn’t enough to cover her rent, car payment and auto insurance, she said.
“Congress has abandoned us. It’s insulting knowing that while we’re unemployed and struggling to get by, Congress doesn’t deem it as critical to come to an agreement,” Swaby says.
Record highs: How did the stock market hit all-time highs amid COVID-19-fueled recession?
The fallout from the worst global pandemic in a century snapped the longest-ever U.S. economic expansion in the spring as the economy suffered one of the sharpest downturns since the Great Depression.
But the stock market eclipsed record highs, staging a remarkable turnaround on massive stimulus measures this year from the Federal Reserve and Congress after a coronavirus-fueled selloff in March.
That has helped retirement balances bounce back recently, but only half of America is feeling the recovery. Just 55% of Americans are invested in the stock market, directly or through mutual funds or 401(k) plans, according to Gallup, an analytics company.
That has left nearly two-thirds of Americans like Swaby feeling bleak about their finances, a new survey shows.
For roughly 60% of Americans, their personal financial situation has stagnated or is worse than when Trump took office in January 2017, according to a new report from investment adviser Stash, which gave the data exclusively to USA TODAY. Just under a third of Americans feel more hopeful about their financial opportunities now than in January 2017.
Americans’ main fear is around their ability to become debt-free, according to the Stash survey, followed by concerns about their ability to build up a retirement fund and fear around the ability to own a home.
While the trend holds up across generations, women and minorities have been disproportionately hurt, the data shows. About 30% of women and nearly 40% of Black women reported a worsened financial situation.
“The American people are suffering. As a Black woman, I don’t feel better off than when Trump first came into office,” Swaby says. “Both Republicans and Democrats should be blamed. They shouldn’t have taken time off until something was passed. But the Senate Republicans are dragging their feet on extending unemployment.”
Further signs of pain emerge
About 43% of those who reported a worsening financial situation cited COVID-19 as the main reason, including obstacles like a lack of wage growth and rising health care costs, according to Stash.
Kunis of California, for instance, has put off getting a CT scan at his doctor’s suggestion despite having a pain in his abdomen. He would have faced rising out-of-pocket costs while unemployed.
His wife wasn’t paid for her teaching position in August, making it difficult for them to cover rent this month. Although the jobless funds are retroactive to Aug. 1, it’s still not clear when they will get the money. Kunis fears that he’ll continue to fall into debt.
“My credit card bill is piling up,” Kunis says. “All of those retroactive payments will end up going to delayed bills. People are trying to feed kids, stay above water and have a home.”
Another 1.1 million people filed claims for jobless benefits for the week of Aug. 15, the Labor Department said Thursday, raising concerns about the economic recovery as Congress struggles to pass another coronavirus relief package. That brings the total number of Americans who have sought unemployment aid to a staggering 57 million over the past 22 weeks since the pandemic began.
U.S. job openings unexpectedly rose in June as more states began reopening, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, a closely watched survey from the Labor Department for insight on hiring. But job openings remained below their pre-pandemic level, a sign that it could take months or even years for the labor market to recover, experts say.