The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millions brace for more layoffs, hunger and utility shutoffs as stimulus talks break down

Small business owners told The Post they will begin cutting workers in a few days if more aid isn’t coming. Some unemployed workers said they expect their water and electricity to be shut off soon.

Bill Winkler, president and owner of Peoria Charter, stands next to buses in his company parking lot on Oct. 7. His business is down 94 percent compared with last year because of the pandemic. (David Zalaznik/For The Washington Post)

Americans left in the lurch by President Trump’s sudden decision to abandon negotiations over a long-delayed stimulus package expressed disbelief, disgust and desperation Wednesday about Trump’s abrupt move.

In interviews with The Washington Post, more than a dozen unemployed workers and struggling business owners affected by the move said that while they are familiar with Washington dysfunction, they are stunned by the latest decision by Trump and Republicans to break discussions off.

Many said they are counting on an influx of financial support, as they watched bank accounts dwindle since the expiration of most of the previous aid programs in August. Two small business owners said they will be laying off workers in the coming days and one unemployed woman said she only had $13 left for groceries.

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Latonya Carter, 46, has been out of work for six months after losing her job as a cook at an Elks Lodge in Pensacola, Fla. She forces a smile for her grandkids, as she worries about her water and lights being shut off. Her job hasn’t returned, because the lodge didn’t reopen.

“I was hoping for another stimulus check so I could pay my bills,” Carter said. “I’m worried about us being in the dark or being without water. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I just don’t know how it got so bad."

The state of Florida denied her unemployment claim because she was technically self-employed and the state wants proof of her prior hours and pay. She’s fighting the denial and praying for another stimulus check to get by in the meantime.

The decision by Trump to walk way from the negotiating table is a high-stakes political and economic gamble. The nation has 26 million people on unemployment aid, and more than 5 million small businesses that relied on government aid over the summer. The economic recovery is slowing on several fronts and could be in danger of backsliding without more aid. Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable warned that a lack of economic stimulus could “worsen” and “prolong” the downturn.

Already, the unemployed have seen their income cut by more than half in most cases, after the extra $600 weekly benefit expired at the end of July.

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Debra Traniello, 68, a grandmother in New Hampshire who has been out of work as a part-time nanny since March, has been struggling to make her payments recently. But instead of celebrating the news of another stimulus check, as she had hoped, she spent Wednesday buying food, taking two items out of her bin so she could get the total under $13.

“I have to decide between food and medication,” she said. Of Trump, she said, “I don’t think he realizes how tough things are for people.”

Ninfa Rodriguez of Milwaukee lost the job she had for 18 years at a casino in March. Her boss told her “this will pass” and to expect a call back to work in June, she said. The call never came.

“My world has been turned upside down. I’ll be 56 next month. I never thought I would be looking for a new job at this age,” Rodriguez said.

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Her husband, a forklift driver, was also out of work over the summer. She paid off as many bills as she could with the extra $600 a week in unemployment money. When the weekly amount dropped and their savings ran out, they turned to credit cards, running up a small debt. If Congress passed another round of stimulus checks, she said she would use it to pay off debt.

“I wish Congress knew that not everyone is going home in a suit and has what they need in the cupboard,” said Rodriguez, who landed a new job stocking inventory at a hardware store, but it’s just part time.

One in 5 small businesses warned in August they would have to close in the next six months if their situation didn’t improve and they did not get more aid, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. Owners in industries hard hit by the pandemic warned they will likely have to lay off more people.

Bill Winkler, the owner and president of an Illinois charter-bus company, Peoria Charter, had a simple answer for who to blame.

“Anybody who has any leadership in Washington, D.C. Our politicians,” he said. “It’s everybody. Get together, help us out, that’s what we put you in office for. This is unprecedented — it will never happen again. Unprecedented times means unprecedented decisions.”

Layoffs still piling up as jobless claims remain stubbornly high

Winkler’s company typically employs more than 130 people running buses across the state, but business is down 94 percent compared with last year. Only 30 people are left on the payroll. Without more aid, he’ll only be able to keep the business going through the end of November, he said.

After drawing criticism for walking away from the stimulus negotiations, Trump sent a long line of tweets late Tuesday calling for $25 billion to support of the airlines industry and more $1,200 stimulus checks. House Democrats circulated a bill with $28.8 billion of support for airlines that Republicans blocked last week.

But Winkler doesn’t understand why airlines would be first to get a second bailout, when there are thousands of other struggling companies like his family business, which was started by his grandfather almost 80 years ago.

There are proposals in the House and Senate to help out bus companies like his, Winkler said, but his industry doesn’t have the lobbying power in Washington to match corporate giants like airlines.

His company received a $1.2 million federal loan earlier this year as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed him to bring back about 90 percent of staff that had been laid off. But he said he had to let go of most of those employees in July after running through the money — part of a wave of layoffs resulting from the expiration of aid programs created by the Cares Act.

“Right now I’m surviving with a $150,000 line of credit, and trying to drum up cash wherever I can find it,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find another industry that has been hit so hard.”

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Trump’s tweets Tuesday were a gut punch for Wade Benz, founder and owner of, a logo-printing business outside of Nashville. His business is down 60 percent because few companies are ordering imprinted bags, water bottles and pens now that trade shows and events are canceled. He has pivoted to making masks with business logos, but it’s barely enough to survive.

Benz didn’t sleep well last night, fearful he will have to lay off many of his remaining 22 workers, down from the 50 he had before the pandemic.

“The news [Tuesday] was crushing for small businesses like myself. I may have to look my workers in the eye soon and lay them off,” Benz said, who choked up as he described how many of these workers have been with him for years since he started the business in 2005.

Benz said he leans Republican but he said he believes the GOP has let small businesses down.

“I feel like the Democrats came to the table and the Republicans did not meet them in the middle,” he said. “PPP was a lifesaver. It saved jobs. It saved people from going bankrupt. I don’t see how small businesses can make it another month or two.”

There are plenty of other badly derailed industries that have received little of the attention given to airlines. Restaurants are in a particularly tough spot with the National Restaurant Association warning 40 percent may be forced to close forever in the next six months. Many restaurants have been surviving because of outdoor dining, but that will change in many parts of the country during the winter. Restaurant owners expressed dismay over Trump’s tweet calling the negotiations off.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw Trump’s tweet,” said Jean-Francois Flechet, founder of Taste of Belgium restaurant in Cincinnati. “I think it’s really terrible to put politics above the welfare of millions and millions of small businesses.”

Flechet says the only reason the restaurant is still in business is because of the PPP loan, but the money ran out for him in August. He was counting on more financial support to help him survive the winter.

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Taste of Belgium employs close to 300 workers and Flechet knows those families are depending on him. But there are many unknowns for the small business: Will cases flare up again? Will he have to close again? Will customers keep coming in the winter to eat in tents? Now he’s nervous that if Trump loses the election, there won’t be any more aid until February, at the earliest.

“If Trump loses, we know he’s a sore loser. He might veto more aid,” Flechet said. “This money is really for survival. If they did another round of PPP, it makes it easier to keep everybody employed and everybody spends money and that helps to maintain the economy.”