PHILADELPHIA — Tara Harrison has a master’s degree, yet is applying for the low-paying receptionist jobs she last held as a teenager. Evan Ocheret is considering giving up his career in music. Amanda McCarty is worried about losing her place in the middle class. Amanda Rinehart is considering borrowing money from her grandmother or selling blood plasma to feed herself and her son.
Unemployment benefits have helped stave off financial ruin for millions of laid-off workers over the last year and a half. After this week, that lifeline will snap: An estimated 7.5 million people will lose their benefits when federally funded emergency unemployment programs end. Millions more will see their checks cut by $300 a week.
The cutoff is the latest and arguably the largest of the benefit “cliffs” that jobless workers have faced during the pandemic. Last summer, the government ended a $600 weekly supplement that workers received early in the crisis, but other programs remained in place. In December, benefits briefly lapsed for millions of workers, but Congress quickly restored them.
This time, no similar rescue appears likely. President Biden has encouraged states with high unemployment rates to use existing federal funds to extend benefits, but few appear likely to do so. And administration officials have said repeatedly that they will not seek a congressional extension of the benefits.
The politics of this cliff are different in part because it affects primarily Democratic-leaning states. Roughly half of states, nearly all of them with Republican governors, have already ended some or all of the federal benefits on the grounds that they were discouraging people from returning to work. So far, there is little evidence they were right: States that cut off benefits have experienced job growth this summer that was little different from that in states that retained the programs.
In the states that kept the benefits, the cutoff will mean the loss of billions of dollars a week in aid when the pandemic is resurgent and the economic recovery is showing signs of fragility. And for workers and their families, it will mean losing their only source of income as other pandemic programs, such as the federal eviction moratorium, are ending. Even under the most optimistic forecasts, it will take months for everyone losing aid to find a job, with potentially long-term consequences for both workers and the economy.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do once these benefits stop,” Ms. Rinehart said.
When the pandemic began, Ms. Rinehart, 33, was an assistant general manager at a hotel in Allentown, Pa. She held on to her job at first, taking her young son with her to work. But when that proved untenable, she left the job, and has been unemployed ever since, most recently living on about $560 a week in benefits, all of which will end this weekend.
A single mother, Ms. Rinehart has been unwilling to send her son, now 8, back to the classroom because he has asthma and several other health conditions that make him especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. He is too young to be vaccinated and too young to be left alone, and she has been unable to find a job that would let her work from home.
“They should not cut these benefits off until there is a vaccine for all the little humans of all ages, because there are parents like me that have children that are high risk for Covid,” she said.
Ms. Rinehart is one of nearly half a million Pennsylvanians who will lose their benefits this weekend, according to estimates from the Century Foundation, a progressive research institute. The state has an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, well above the national rate of 5.4 percent.
Pennsylvania, like the country as a whole, has experienced a significant economic rebound, but a partial one: Domestic tourists this summer again lined up to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and thrill-seekers again rode the roller coasters at Hersheypark. But many downtown offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh remain all but empty, and conventioneers have not yet returned to conference hotels, or to the restaurants and bars that relied on their business. Overall, Pennsylvania has regained about two-thirds of the jobs lost in the pandemic, compared with about three-quarters nationally.
“There’s been a partial recovery in a lot of the industries that are shut down, but it’s not back to where it was,” said Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, a workers’ rights group in Pittsburgh. The committee was formed in the 1980s in response to layoffs in the steel industry; it has had a second life in the pandemic, helping thousands of Pennsylvanians navigate the state’s unemployment system.
Mr. Ocheret, 32, is a professional oboist in Philadelphia. Before the pandemic, he cobbled together a living as a freelancer, performing with symphonies and opera companies up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and picking up the occasional gig with pop artists who wanted onstage orchestra sections. It all dried up almost overnight in March 2020.
Performances began to return this spring, and Mr. Ocheret recently picked up a once-a-week gig that will last into September with an orchestra in New Jersey. But his calendar remains sparse this fall, and without unemployment benefits to fall back on, he isn’t sure how he will get by. He has signed up for computer coding courses to give him another option — one that he doesn’t want to take, but that he says he may have to consider if the industry doesn’t rebound by the end of the year.
“I hate to stop doing the thing I love,” Mr. Ocheret said. “But if things don’t start to improve, I may have to do something different.”
Three federal programs will end this weekend. One, which extended regular benefits beyond the 26 weeks offered in most states, covers about 3.3 million people, according to the Century Foundation. A second program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, covers 4.2 million gig workers, the self-employed and others who don’t qualify for standard benefits. Nearly three million additional people will lose a $300 weekly federal supplement to other unemployment benefits.
When Congress last renewed the programs in March, as part of Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, policymakers hoped that September would represent a return to normal for the economy. If most Americans were vaccinated and the pandemic was under control, then schools and offices could reopen and people could return to work.
But the rise of the Delta variant has complicated that picture. Major employers across the country have shelved their return-to-office plans. International tourism remains largely shut down, and restaurants, which were packed for much of the summer, are seeing reservations slow.
“We’re in a different place now than we thought we were going to be,” Ms. McCarty said. “The Sept. 6 deadline made sense maybe in May and June. It seems preposterous now.”
Ms. McCarty, 43, was furloughed as a buyer for a large Philadelphia clothing retailer at the start of the pandemic. A few months later, the job loss turned permanent, reshaping the McCartys’ lives.
The family moved from Philadelphia to Lancaster County in search of cheaper housing. Ms. McCarty’s husband, a graphic designer, earns enough to pay rent, but they are still figuring out how to cover their other bills without the roughly $900 a week they were getting in unemployment benefits. Their 19-year-old daughter has set aside her college plans. And Ms. McCarty, a cancer survivor, is putting off medical tests until she can afford to pay the deductible on her insurance plan.
“You put 10, 15, 20 years into a career and then to suddenly not be able to go see a dentist anymore, it feels like something’s wrong there,” she said. “I think I’m still grieving the loss of my opportunity of being middle class, because that’s gone again.”
Regular unemployment benefits, without the $300 add-on, replace only a fraction of workers’ lost wages. In Pennsylvania, the maximum benefit is $580 a week, the equivalent of about $30,000 a year. In some Southern states, the maximum benefit is less than $300 a week.
Still, decades of economic research have shown that unemployment benefits are at least a bit of a disincentive to seeking work. When the economy is weak, that negative consequence is offset by the positive impact the benefits have on workers, but many economists argue that it makes sense to ramp down benefits as the economy improves.
Cutting off benefits for millions of people all at once, however, is another matter.
“Losing a job is something that we know from research is one of the most damaging things to your financial and personal well-being over the long run,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “We’ve avoided those kinds of long-term impacts to a large part during the pandemic because we’ve been aggressive with our forms of support. Now we’re pulling it back, we’re putting people at risk.”
Ms. Harrison, despite her master’s degree, has already lost her job twice since the pandemic began. She was furloughed from her human resources job early on. She eventually found work helping to run a Covid-testing business, but was laid off again in March as the pandemic began to ebb. Now she spends her days scouring job boards and sending applications.
“It’s going to end,” she said of the unemployment benefits. “You know it’s going to end. So you can’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs.”
Her husband has diabetes and high blood pressure, and they live with her mother, so Ms. Harrison, 47, is reluctant to return to in-person work until the pandemic is under control. Despite having a master’s degree and senior-level experience, she is applying for positions as a receptionist or an administrative assistant — jobs she last did decades ago.
“I spent years in school — I spent money out of my own pocket to better educate myself — so that I would be able to be a good breadwinner and take care of my family,” she said. “Never did I think I would be applying to be somebody’s receptionist. But if somebody called me to be their receptionist, I’m taking it.”
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.
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