To many economists, the extra $600-a-week in unemployment benefits that Congress created in March, which helped stabilize income for tens of millions of unemployed workers, is one of the main reasons the financial crisis is not even worse.
Banks have not seen a deluge of defaults on consumer and corporate loans, personal debt is down, and some studies have shown that poverty rates eased compared to pre-pandemic levels, as a significant percentage of lower-wage workers ended up collecting more on unemployment than they did at work.
But this benefits cliff is here, as most of the unemployed received their final infusion of the extra $600 from the federal government last week.
Workers will still receive payments from their home states, but the loss of the extra $600 will slash payments by more than half for many, and in some cases significantly more for workers in states that offer only meager unemployment benefits.
While Democrats have called for the full benefits to be extended, Republicans have argued that the extra weekly $600 is too generous and is a disincentive for the unemployed to return to work. The two sides continue to wrangle over a new relief bill in Congress.
The Washington Post talked to workers from across the socioeconomic spectrum about what the money has meant for their households during such a critical time. They told us about the challenges of paying the basic expenses that undergird millions of households in the United States — rent, mortgage and car payments, electricity, medications and food, giving us a snapshot of their fundamental economic needs. They told us about sleepless nights, dreams put on hold and the plans they’ve been making to prepare for major upheaval should unemployment benefits fail to be renewed during the prolonged public health crisis.
Candida Kevorkian, 53, San Francisco
Unemployed since March.
Candida Kevorkian applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in her 20 years in the United States shortly after getting furloughed from her job as a housekeeping supervisor at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco.
She did not expect to be unemployed for four months.
She’s receiving around $1,050 a week on unemployment insurance before taxes, which has helped her keep paying the bills at the two-bedroom apartment where she lives in with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in South San Francisco. She made $28 an hour at work.
All three adults in the house have been laid off — her son worked at the Moscone Center, a convention center downtown, and her daughter-in-law worked at a Marriott. The three have been working to keep costs down, even with the extra $600 in jobless benefits.
Kevorkian has cut back on cooking with meat to just once a week and brought down her credit card bill by abstaining from buying things like clothes or new footwear. And the family has convinced their landlord to lower rent from $2,850 to $2,350 for a while.
Still, Kevorkian estimates she has some $1,700 worth of expenses a month, in addition to the rent. Her son and daughter-in-law share their room with the 17-year-old, while Kevorkian’s 11-year-old granddaughter sleeps in her room.
The prospect of losing the $600 benefit has been keeping her up at night, fearing she won’t have money for food and other basic expenses.
“If they don’t give the $600 anymore, maybe I’m going to have only money to pay rent,” she said. “This is the near future for me — I’m stressed. In the nighttime, I’m thinking and thinking and thinking … How am I going to make it?”
Kevorkian says she has little hope that her job will rebound, given how poorly the public health side of the crisis is going. It’s all made her feel powerless. She’s upped the amount of medication, citalopram, that she takes for anxiety, she said.
“People are taking decisions for you and your life … In the middle of this pandemic they’re playing with us,” she said. “If you don’t have the [vaccine] what is going to happen? What decision are they going to make? What direction this country is going to take? They’re playing with our lives, our decisions, our families.”
Catherine Peterson Doyle, 56, Asheville, N.C.
Unemployed since April.
Catherine Peterson Doyle is one of the millions of people who have had issues with overloaded unemployment insurance systems that have caused lengthy delays in receiving payments.
She has yet to receive any payments, despite filing at the end of April, after she lost her work as a real estate agent when the market cratered in March.
She, her husband, John, 49, and their 16-year-old daughter Rossagh have been surviving off the unemployment benefits John has been getting since his work as a producer and musician playing traditional Irish music dried up with the pandemic.
The pandemic cost her what could have been $20,000 of real estate work so far, she believes, and her husband another $70,000 to $80,000 worth of work.
The couple is scraping by with the weekly $600 in payments, plus $130 that John gets from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the newly created unemployment insurance for gig and self-employed workers. The two have put their $500 monthly mortgage payment on their house into forbearance, meaning they don’t have to pay it for now. And they’re worried about having trouble getting unemployment benefits from North Carolina. Everything is up in the air.
“You know, we kind of just play it by ear at that point,” she said.
The rest of the jobless benefits they receive have paid for groceries, gas, utilities and cleaning supplies.
The couple has only a few months of savings in the bank. And every decision to spend money is analyzed closely. An offer to buy a used car that a friend was going to sell them on the cheap had to be turned down.
“We just have to sit on every bit of cash that we have,” Doyle said.
A grocery trip was once a single-stop affair. Now, Doyle now breaks it up into parts, stopping at a wholesaler for bulk items, a grocery store for produce and fresh items, and a discount store up the road that offers coffee beans for a fraction of the $10 a pound she used to pay at the supermarket, she said.
The family is skipping the typical rafting, canoeing, kayaking and tubing trips they would do in the Asheville area this year, she said, although they have been able to get outside for inexpensive day trips like picnics and hikes. Rossagh, who will be a junior in high school, has had to forgo the tennis lessons she takes every summer. New clothes or shoes are out of the question at the moment. She’s checked out books from the library for school.
Doyle found part-time work as a temperature checker at a manufacturing company, but that gig will end in August. In the meantime, she’s apply for marketing jobs she sees online, while feeling pessimistic that her husband’s work, much of which revolves around festivals and touring, will rebound.
“We feel like we’re in a bit of no man’s land, really, because of the whole self-employed thing,” she said. “If I only had a dime for every sleepless night in the last four or five months now. I mean, it’s horrible. You know, the stress and the tension is literally, you know, it’s keeping me and so many people awake every night. … People in Washington, you just feel like their lives are so completely out of touch with what so many people are going through right now.”
Raven Holmes, 38, New Haven, Conn.
Unemployed since February.
Raven Holmes has been receiving unemployment insurance since March, after she was let go from a position as a receptionist at Yale University.
The single mom, who lives with two of her three children, sons ages 8 and 16, said her weekly payments are about $866 — $266 from the state and the rest from the federal benefit. It’s been enough to cover the bills at the moment.
But as the $600 in enhanced benefits runs out, she’s concerned about getting by on just $266 a week. It’s not enough to cover the $1,200 monthly rent or the more than $800 she spends on food, utilities and other household goods, she said.
Already, she’s instituted cuts around the house in anticipation of the benefits’ expiration. She started carpooling to the grocery store, split a BJ’s Wholesale Club card with her mother and aunt so they can buy food in bulk — big bags of chicken wings, hot dogs or cereal — and has stopped getting takeout or restaurant food.
She has also been looking for ways to reduce electricity, braving the summer heat without air conditioning on days when it’s bearable, and taking out the cable box in her sons’ rooms, which leaves only one in the house, she said.
“If they want to watch TV, they are going to have to agree on something,” she said.
But there are some payments she can’t bring down, like her car insurance, cellphone and rent. She has begun visiting a few food banks, she said.
“Luckily my boys have no problem eating cereal all day if we’re low on food,” she said. “Once you have absolutely nothing, it’s not hard at all.”
She said she hopes Congress will figure something out. Otherwise she’s going to have to plead with her landlord, utility companies and other bill holders to let accounts go into arrears until she lands on her feet again.
“Money is not a resource that can be depleted. It’s a man-made thing: If you need more make more,” she said. “There are other countries — their citizens are fine, nobody is suffering and everybody is healthy. All our government wants is money in their pockets, while the people are poor and starving and scrounging.”
Willie Woods, 60, New Orleans, La.
Unemployed since April.
Willie Woods used to work as a banquet server at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel, a stable job he had worked at for more than a dozen years.
He made about $5,000 a month, after taxes, he said. But he was laid off in April and began collecting about $744 a week, after his unemployment insurance payments were processed in May.
Before the Hilton, and before Hurricane Katrina walloped the city, he worked at what was then called the Fairmont hotel in New Orleans. He has made a decent living in the hotel industry, enough to support a family that has continued to grow as his children have had their own kids.
“That’s what I did all my life,” he said. “I didn’t have to work anywhere else. We’re making more money than teachers and doctors.”
But now he wonders whether he’ll ever get his job back and says the family will be in a tough situation when the extra $600 in benefits run out.
Woods estimates he has about $2,500 of bills and payments every month.
“We’re going to be scuffling,” he said. “It won’t be good.”
He said he doesn’t have much faith in Congress to make the right decisions for people like him.
“Just a few men have to make this decision for how many million people? Ten guys to make a decision over these millions of people’s lives?” he said. “This country not taking care of American citizens like they’re supposed to. We didn’t bring this pandemic home. We were at work, and you hit us with a pandemic.”
Jennifer Pirkl, 34, Columbus, Ohio
Unemployed since April.
Jennifer Pirkl said she is most worried about how she will pay for her medical expenses if the extra $600 in weekly benefits are reduced or not renewed.
Pirkl has about $500 worth of medical expenses each month to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and narcolepsy.
She was furloughed in April from her job as a design specialist at the commercial real estate company Washington Prime Group, which has kept her medical costs well below the $60,000 to $70,000 they would be without insurance.
But she worries about the money she will need for treatment should she be permanently laid off. The cost to continue her health-care coverage from COBRA would be around $830 a month, she said.
Pirkl is living temporarily with her parents, a change she made for financial reasons after a divorce last year.
The extra $600 in federal jobless benefits, which comes on top of about $420 from the state each week, has allowed her to maintain her monthly take-home pay from her job, she says.
She has kept up with her bills — paying off credit card debt she accrued in recent years, paying a $327 monthly car payment, continuing to put savings into a retirement account, and helping her parents with expenses around the house.
She said she still hopes life will bounce back to normal if she’s called back to work, starting the home-buying search she had put off as the pandemic hit, for example. In the meantime, uncertainty hangs in the air.
“It’s very hard for me to understand why this is happening,” she said. “I feel like I’ve made all of the right decisions that I can with my life. I’ve made sure to get a good job and be able to pay my bills on time and save money. And I try to do as best as I can with my health. And then all of the sudden it seems like those things weren’t enough. So when I see that the $600 might be taken away, without knowing what my work has planned, it’s just kind of a scary, scary place because I don’t know what other good decisions I can make to make the situation better for myself.”