Nearly 30 million workers have lost $600 in enhanced weekly unemployment benefits that have kept much of the economy afloat these past four months during the coronavirus pandemic, as top lawmakers in Congress and the White House remain at an impasse over how and whether to extend the benefits.
Most of the last checks went out this week, but the program officially ended Friday, a day that Democrats and Republicans spent trading barbs over who was to blame for the failed negotiations.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Democrats had rejected reasonable offers, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) derided Republicans for trying to advance a short-term fix that would have extended the benefits for just a week.
“The president has been very clear for us to be aggressive and forward-leaning to make sure that they get protected, and yet what we’re seeing is politics as usual from Democrats on Capitol Hill,” Meadows said, addressing reporters in the White House briefing room.
As he was speaking, Pelosi held a news conference on Capitol Hill, where she criticized Republicans for proposing the short-term extension with their backs against the wall.
“What are we going to do in a week?” Pelosi asked as she explained why Democrats rejected the proposal to continue enhanced unemployment benefits at the current $600 weekly level for an additional week.
As many as 30 million workers, including gig workers and the self-employed, are currently receiving some form of unemployment insurance, which has been supplemented by $600 in extra benefits each week — on top of whatever state unemployment benefits a worker gets — since the crisis deepened in March.
Many economists and workers credit the additional money with helping them keep up with basic bills during the crisis: rent, mortgage, car and credit card payments, as well as everyday expenses like food. Most states cap weekly unemployment benefits well below $600; some pay as little as $275 a week as their maximum.
Candida Kevorkian, 53, her son and her daughter-in-law have all been laid off and live together with her two grandchildren in a two-bedroom apartment in South San Francisco, Calif. She worked at the Westin St. Francis hotel; her son worked at the Moscone Center, a convention center downtown; and her daughter-in-law worked at a Marriott.
The extra $600 Kevorkian gets brings her overall jobless benefits to about $1,050 a week before taxes. But she has about $1,700 in other monthly fixed expenses on top of rent, which is $2,350 — after she negotiated with her landlord to lower it from $2,850. The family has already cut back on clothing, shoes and food, including cooking with meat once a week. She says she has little hope that her job will return given how poorly the public health side of the crisis is going, and she said she feels powerless.
“People are taking decisions for you and your life," she said. “In the middle of this pandemic they’re playing with us.”
Back in March, when the economy was beginning to fail, because of the forced shutdowns to stop the spread of the virus, lawmakers rallied around the idea that they were rushing to shore up the economy through a short-lived public health crisis, agreeing to pass more than $2 trillion in stimulus that they thought would see the nation through the summer, when they hoped the pandemic would ease.
But surging coronavirus cases have spurred many states to reverse course and close down restaurants and bars again, weighing on the economic recovery. The novel coronavirus has killed more than 150,000 people in the United States, according to data gathered by The Washington Post.
Indeed, the pandemic outlasted the original relief efforts Congress passed.
Jim Quebman, 61, an engineer in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was initially told he’d be back at work in two weeks when he was furloughed in March from his job at a machine shop. But the date for his return keeps getting pushed back.
He’s been relying on the $600 he gets from the federal government, in addition to $450 in state benefits, to keep up to date with his monthly payments: $2,200 in mortgage payments and property taxes, $1,200 to keep his health insurance once his employer stops paying in August, a $300 car payment and other expenses like food and repairs.
Without the $600, he said he might have to have to raid his 401(k) retirement savings.
“I’ll be in trouble within two months, basically,” he said. “How can you retire if you don’t have a pension and health care, that’s paid by, let’s say, a government.”
Raven Holmes, 38, a single mother of two who lost her job as an secretary in New Haven, Conn., back in February, said she already instituted a series of cuts in anticipation of the benefits’ expiration. She started carpooling to the grocery store, split a BJ’s Wholesale Club card with family to buy food in bulk, and has stopped getting takeout or restaurant food.
She also said she’s begun visiting food banks to help feed her and her two sons.
“Once you have absolutely nothing, it’s not hard at all," she said, about accepting charity.
The longer Congress stalls, the more likely it is that she will 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.”
The wrangling over whether and how to extend jobless benefits has occupied Washington for months.
Eager to avoid blame for Friday’s expiration of the enhanced unemployment aid, Republicans have increasingly coalesced around the idea of a short-term fix. But Democrats have repeatedly rejected that approach and continue pushing for a wide-ranging $3 trillion bill the House passed in May. That bill would extend unemployment benefits through January.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled a $1 trillion counterproposal Monday, but it was quickly rejected by many members of his own conference and has increasingly seemed irrelevant as Republicans look to a short-term fix.
Senate Republicans have proposed cutting the $600 weekly federal benefit to $200 per week for two months while giving states time to transition to a more complicated system that would aim to replace 70 percent of a worker’s prior wages. A second proposal emerged this week that would give states the choice to implement the $200 bonus or move to a system that would replace up to 66 percent of wages.
Pelosi and Meadows have held meetings for four days straight, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Pelosi said such a short-term extension might make sense if a deal were in sight on a larger bill and more time was needed to complete it. But, she said, that is not the state of play as the parties remain far apart.
“We anticipate that we will have a bill, but we’re not there yet,” Pelosi said.
Those who are relying the benefits have been watching the debate unfold wearily.
“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?” said Willie Woods, 60, who has been furloughed from his job as a hotel banquet server in New Orleans since April and is also losing the extra $600 a week in jobless benefits. "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.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jim Quebman, a furloughed engineer from Thousand Oaks, Calif., pays $2,200 a month in property taxes for his home. The $2,200 monthly payment described includes a mortgage as well as property taxes owed on the house.