The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress left town and let jobless benefits lapse. Unemployed Americans say they won’t forget it.

About 28 million people were receiving unemployment payments on Aug. 1 when the typical aid payment went from more than $900 a week to about $300.

Events and entertainment workers protest about the need for unemployment benefits in Las Vegas, Nevada during August 2020.(Bridget Bennett / AFP/Getty Images)

Shawn Gabriel, a single father of two in Parma, Ohio, has learned what it means to struggle since he lost his construction job in March. His landlord sent him an eviction notice after he was a few days late on August rent.

Gabriel keeps looking for work, but for now his family is living off of $189 a week that he gets in unemployment benefits, which is not enough to cover his $950 rent, let alone food, electric, Internet and other expenses.

But the bulk of his frustration has been reserved for one place: Congress, whose members left town in August after letting the $600-a-week unemployment bonus that millions of people like Gabriel have been relying on expire.

“Most of them are rich. They don’t struggle. They get paid,” Gabriel said. “I think they should have come to an agreement.”

Gabriel scrambled to scratch together his rent as well as the $35 late fee his landlord tacked on, but he is worried about September.

“I think this guy will try to get rid of me,” he said of his landlord.

Similar stories are playing out nationwide. Millions of desperate Americans, many of whom have never relied on emergency government assistance before, are flabbergasted and furious, believing they have been cut loose by a Washington political structure that doesn’t care about their predicament during the pandemic. The stock market has snapped back, but the labor market remains in really bad shape. On Thursday, the Labor Department said another 1 million Americans filed jobless claims last week. About 27 million Americans are now receiving some form of unemployment aid.

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The Post spoke to Americans about the stresses of an uncertain income during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Washington Post spoke to 20 people who have lost their livelihoods in recent months, and all said they felt immense pressure to stay afloat without the extra $600, which expired at the end of July. Every person interviewed said they were furious at Washington policymakers for letting such a critical benefit lapse amid the nation’s worst economic crisis in a century. Often, the anger was directed at Republicans, who control the White House and the Senate, although a few credited President Trump for at least trying to take action on his own.

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Many described increasingly desperate situations, as they cut back on basic expenses such as food, certain medicines and cable TV. This led many to stand in line at food banks, apply for food stamps or rely on unemployment insurance, many for the first time.

“To watch these people who never have to worry about a dollar in their lives, go on vacation for a month without even thinking about the fact that people are going to be homeless and dead at the end of it, because they want to take their vacation, it’s crushing,” Madeleine Olson, 27, a Michigan resident who lost her job in March, said about members of Congress.

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Olson had worked as a contractor doing data entry for energy companies before she lost her job.

“I don’t even know if they realize in Washington what’s going on, because they don’t see it,” she said.

Lawmakers didn’t necessarily go on vacation, as Olson put it, but they did leave Washington without reaching a deal. The average weekly payment is just over $300 now, although many people receive far less. Republican and Democratic leaders have barely spoken in the past two weeks. A call Thursday between Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ended with little progress.

Gabriel, the dad in Ohio, voted for Trump in 2016. He is not a huge fan of Democrats, but he said he mostly faults Republicans for the mess he is in with such a small amount of unemployment aid.

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“I blame [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell the most,” he said. “At least [Pelosi] was trying four months ago.”

Democrats passed a bill in May to extend the $600-a-week payments, which expired in July, through the end of the year. But Republicans proposed reducing the amount to $200 out of concerns that some jobless people were receiving so much in government aid that it was dissuading them from working again, a claim that several studies have rebutted.

In a sign of growing pain, serious mortgage delinquencies have surged to a 10-year high, and evictions are predicted to skyrocket in the coming weeks as people such as Gabriel struggle to pay September rent. Congress has not renewed the federal eviction moratorium that expired in late July, either.

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Jessica Williamson has spent the past few days trying to get a loan on her car so she can pay rent. She still owes $100 for August. Another $800 is due shortly for September.

She gets frustrated when she hears people say unemployed Americans would rather sit at home than work.

Williamson did go back to her job in July as a bartender at a casino on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. But business is not the same, with fewer customers meaning smaller tips and less hours to work than she needs to get by.

A single mom, she and her two kids are living off about $350 a week — half from her job and another half from unemployment.

Unable to pay all her bills, she has been hit with late fees on rent and utilities this month, which only puts her further behind.

“Congress doesn’t understand. I don’t think they’ll ever understand,” Williamson said. “They don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck.”

Gregg Pupecki, 48, of Middlesex County, Mass., was one of several people who used the word “disgusting” to describe how he felt about Congress leaving town as the unemployment benefits lapsed. He is another 2016 Trump voter who says he will probably go the other way this election after losing faith in the president during the pandemic.

“His lack of leadership on the coronavirus was dismal,” said Pupecki, who lost his job as a manager of a marina in May. “He basically let the whole country down.”

Pupecki was one of the many people The Post talked to who said they had little faith that the executive action that Trump signed earlier in the month would result in more benefits in their pockets. So far, five states — Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas — are paying out the money Trump promised.

The federal government has said that the order will allow people to receive an extra $300 a week in federal funding for a few weeks, from a disaster relief fund managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But the funding, which may support only three weeks of aid, has raised complicated logistical questions.

“It’s great to sign a piece of paper, but no money is reaching anybody,” Pupecki said. “The whole thing was a dog and pony show.”

Trump’s program also requires states to jump through bureaucratic hoops because the money is coming from FEMA. Thirty-four states have been approved for the program so far.

There’s also another catch: Trump’s executive memo said unemployed workers must receive at least $100 a week from their state to qualify for the $300 federal payment, leaving out many people in the most vulnerable financial circumstances.

“When I figured out that executive order wasn’t going to mean squat for me, I cried,” said Stephanie Hightower, an out-of-work home caregiver in Indiana who is receiving $75 a week in unemployment.

A Trump supporter in the past, Hightower is undecided now. Many of her friends posted on Facebook that she should be just fine now with the president’s move, but Hightower has had to explain that she won’t benefit at all.

Greg Garret, 33, of Hammond, Ind., who was laid off from his job as a lead technician with a ventilation and HVAC company in March, had a slightly different perspective.

He said he was fed up with both the Democrats and the Republicans, and not very happy with the way Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

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But Trump’s executive order seemed like the only attempt to help him right now, Garret said, even though he was philosophically opposed to using the measure as a policymaking tool, he said.

“I care about putting food in my son’s stomach,” he said. “So, you know, I guess I could say I appreciate Trump doing that. Whether that actually happens or not is a different story. And realistically, I need money today, not three weeks or four weeks or six weeks from now.”

Garret said he and his family have been stretched in ways they never expected in recent months. They applied for food stamps and unemployment insurance for the first time, learning that they could receive only one of them at a time.

Now that the $600 benefit has ended, Garret and his wife, a stay-at-home mother to their 6-year-old son, are not sure they’ll be able to get by on the $149 per week he receives from the state.

“What we’ve been doing, especially these last three, four weeks, is basically look at every line item. To the point where we’re like, you know, ‘Do we shut off the Internet to the house?’ ” he said. “We keep trying to be like, ‘Oh, you know, it will get better.’ My wife, she’s gotten to the point where she’s just sick of it. It seems like no one cares on the political side.”

Spiking food prices have made their financial outlook only worse.

Many would like to return to work, but the nation has only about 5.9 million job openings for 27 million people receiving unemployment payments, Labor Department data show. Many parents are also having to make the gut-wrenching choice between work or caring for children, as many schools remain virtual this fall.

Hightower, the mom in Indiana, kept working in March and April because her in-laws agreed to watch the kids. Then her father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and it became too risky for the children to be near him. Hightower said she felt she had no choice but to quit her job in May. Her husband is a long-haul truck driver.

“I was hoping and praying I would get to go back to that job. But then schools closed and stayed closed,” Hightower said. “Bills are piling up. I have a couple of credit cards. They’re way past their amount.”

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Others expressed skepticism about the president’s executive order, pointing to Trump’s track record of misleading and false statements.

“I don’t believe a word that man says,” said Lynn Wheatley, who lost her work as an event planner in March.

Wheatley, of Tulsa, and her retired husband are living on about $190 from the state in unemployment insurance a week and his Social Security payments, and trying not to use up too much of their savings.

Mary Ann Foster, 63, whose massage business in Longmont, Colo., closed early in the pandemic, said she, too, was skeptical about the order.

She and her husband have been surviving on her unemployment payments, which are now about $200 a week, and they are dipping into savings to cover the $1,500 a month they pay for health care, property taxes and other expenses.

“If it ever happens, it’ll only be for three weeks,” she said. “It’s a lot of work for a little relief and no larger picture coordination.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.