Workers in several states are beginning to see the latest enhanced unemployment benefits hit their bank accounts this week, following the long awaited Covid stimulus package that was finally signed into law Dec. 27, 2020.
But for millions of Americans, those benefits are too little, too late.
That's the sentiment of Debbie Fletcher, 57, who lost her job as a bartender in Massachusetts back in March 2020. When she began receiving jobless benefits last spring, including the $600 weekly boost provided in the CARES Act, she recovered nearly 100% of her wages lost during the pandemic. When that supplement ended after July, however, she struggled to pay for basic essentials like housing and utilities.
While Senate Republicans and House Democrats spent the remainder of the year sparring over extending the supplemental aid, Fletcher said she resorted to opening new credit cards to pay her bills.
The latest Covid legislation will bump her benefits up by another $300 per week, but at this point, "this $300 is just for playing catchup for the last five months," Fletcher says. "There's no way for me to come back from this."
"The worst thing is that millions of other people in the world are doing the same thing to get by," she continues. "I hate to think what the world will look like in five years when people file for bankruptcy if they can't recover."
Workers say job prospects are unlikely to rebound by March
The latest rescue package also extends federal jobless aid for 11 weeks: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which supports gig workers and people not traditionally eligible for aid, as well as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, for the long-term unemployed, are in effect until March 14; those who haven't exhausted their aid by this point will phase out by April 11.
But Fletcher says she has just eight weeks of PEUC left. She adds that she applies to jobs on Indeed every day, but her expertise in hospitality doesn't take her far in an industry decimated due to the virus. The hospitality sector has still not recovered 3.9 million jobs lost to the pandemic, according to the latest jobs report.
"Everything I've ever done has been in the hospitality field, and trying to find another job right now is impossible," Fletcher says. "I don't know what I'm going to do. At 57, I'm too old to start another career."
The mid-March expiration of federal benefits also worries Alan Kriesel, 59, of Texas who was furloughed from his engineering job in April and eliminated in November. Though he has more than 30 years of experience in his field, the majority of job openings he sees call for just three to five.
Kriesel estimates he's applied to 129 jobs and landed a handful of phone, virtual and in-person interviews, but he finds employers are primarily not hiring for seasoned professionals like himself, even though he's willing to take a pay cut just to continue working.
With limited job prospects, Kriesel thinks he may have to end his search and draw from retirement funds early: "I'll go as long as the unemployment lasts. If I get a job before then, great. If not, I'm basically forced into retirement at that time — ready or not, here you are."
Many economists and policy analysts have recommended enhanced jobless aid be tied to economic indicators, such as the unemployment rate, rather than an arbitrary calendar date set by Congress. Meanwhile, the share of people experiencing long-term unemployment is rising. As of December, roughly 37% of those unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.
Workers forced to weigh income with virus risks
Elsewhere in Texas, Chantay Roberts, 44, was able to make essential payments for herself and her 8-year-old son with the help of federal stimulus after she lost work in April. Between receiving her tax refund, a stimulus check and the $600 weekly unemployment boost, she pre-paid her rent and other utility bills through August.
In August, she was eager to land a job as a customer service representative. She began training with the company online and was told her position would remain remote at least until the new year. Then, the company moved up its return-to-office date to October.
Roberts' son has epilepsy, so she sent her new employer documentation from her son's neurologist that showed her household was recommended to self-isolate during the virus outbreak. Soon after, she says she was terminated from the position.
Roberts says she is currently working with the Texas Workforce Commission to investigate whether she was wrongfully let go. She doesn't understand why she can't continue to work remotely due to health-care needs; her son, meanwhile, is self-sufficient while doing at-home learning, she adds.
While she ultimately wants to get back to work, she is now back to relying on unemployment, but this time with the reduced $300 weekly boost. Even with that sum, "everything that I already paid up — now I'm falling behind again," Roberts says. "You can only make so many arrangements. The money only goes so far. If my internet gets turned off, [my son] has no school, and I have no way of applying for work."
"It's really unbearable right now," she continues. "I don't know what I'm going to do. Even if I find another job, I can't go into an office because of my 8-year-old. It's confusing and scary and very frustrating."
Many who qualify still haven't seen any aid
The latest federal stimulus will do little to help millions like Kimberly Frampton, 53, of New Jersey whose jobless claims have either been disrupted in the nearly year-long crisis, or haven't been paid out at all.
Frampton says she began receiving unemployment after she lost her job as a cleaner in February. In early July, payments stopped. In the months since, she's tried contacting state officials and her unemployment agency about why the remainder of her $1,035 benefits reserve still has not been released to her.
Since then, she's applied for food stamps and cash assistance: "I've never had to do anything like this before. It's embarrassing." She lives with her 80-year-old mother, who has cleared out her savings to help the two of them get through the pandemic financially.
As someone who has navigated the unemployment system in the past, Frampton says she understood that delays were to be expected in administering aid during the initial shocks of the pandemic. Now, her patience is wearing thin — as is that of bill collectors.
"I'm a patient and understanding person usually," she says, "but I'm not now. I could be homeless, and my car could be repossessed. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. I hope I'm wrong. I'm persistent and I will get my money, but that doesn't mean I won't lose everything."
Labor advocates have long called out the systemic disinvestment of nationwide unemployment insurance systems, which disproportionately harms Black, Hispanic, women, young and low-income workers by not administering aid in a timely manner. Record levels of unemployment, newly created programs and increased fraud during the pandemic have all slowed down an already broken unemployment insurance system.
Though lawmakers have said additional aid will be approved with the incoming Biden administration, months of Congressional inaction are leaving many workers skeptical that such promises will lead to adequate action. Many expect the scarring to be long-lasting in more ways than one.
"The American people got pushed aside to politics," Fletcher, from Massachusetts, says. "They did us such a disservice during the pandemic. They forgot about us a long time ago."