Unemployed workers face hardship, desperation as benefits run out
Mary Taboniar, a housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, looks over bills at her home in Waipahu, Hawaii, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the COVID pandemic. The single mother of two saw her income completely vanish as the virus devastated the hospitality industry. Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. | Caleb Jones/AP

When two vital programs expired on Sept. 6, millions of jobless Americans lost their unemployment benefits, leaving them vulnerable to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as natural disasters like the flooding that ravaged New York City and the wildfires in the Western states. At least 8.9 million U.S. citizens have been stripped of these benefits, with no solution or reprieve in sight.

As the Delta surge and now also the appearance of the Mu variant of COVID-19 impact the fragile pandemic recovery, the abrupt end of aid to Americans comes as a serious blow, denying them access to two essential programs. The first of them gave jobless assistance to self-employed and gig workers, while the second supported those who have been without jobs for more than six months. Salt in their wounds is what those receiving regular unemployment benefits from the states also got on Sept. 6 as they saw the end to the $300 federal supplement to their checks.

“Millions of jobless workers are going to suffer when benefits expire on Monday,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. “It didn’t need to be this way. It’s clear from the economic and health conditions on the ground that we shouldn’t be cutting off benefits now. It’s heartbreaking to know it didn’t have to be this way.” He proposed linking jobless benefits more closely with economic conditions so they won’t expire in times of need, remarking, “We’ve got to take the unemployment system into the 21st century.”

Though the White House has attempted to motivate states to continue paying the $300 weekly benefit by using money from stimulus legislation, no states have chosen to do so; many even elected to opt out of the federal program early after some businesses claimed they couldn’t find enough people to hire. Data has proven that removing unemployment aid early in those states has had only minimal economic benefits. Such states have experienced little to no hiring relative to the rest of the U.S.

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, noted that he had attended some Capitol Hill meetings on unemployment insurance and found that the prevailing mentality is that “there is a feeling that it took all the political attention and now Congress needs to work on other things.” By contrast, he added, “The end of the pandemic will be an abrupt jolt to millions of Americans who won’t find a job in time for this arbitrary end to assistance.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-NY., urged President Biden to revive the federal pandemic-oriented unemployment benefits, stating, “We need to expand the UI for millions of unemployed workers because this crisis isn’t over. People are not only dealing with COVID surges, they’re dealing with impacts of climate change, from extreme flooding in my district to heat waves and fires in the West.” Bowman, a Black Lives Matter activist, is serving his iterm in Congress and has already made his mark as a leading progressive in the Democratic caucus.

The removal of benefits comes at a time when the nation has 5.7 million fewer jobs than it did pre-pandemic, and when Americans are still financially crippled with only sparse access to social assistance programs, such as food stamps/SNAP benefits, for which the White House approved a 25 percent increase last month. It will remain one of the few lifelines for 42.7 million U.S. citizens for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, more Americans must contend with the prospect of homelessness now that the federal eviction moratorium has expired, though some Democratic-controlled states such as California, New York, Washington, Illinois, and Minnesota are offering extensions on theirs. For many working class people, however, both SNAP and that very moratorium were keeping them afloat; in the wake of the dissolution of the latter, many will suffer.

One such person at risk is Mary Taboniar, a housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, a single mother of two who depended entirely upon pandemic-boosted unemployment benefits and local foodbanks, after an obvious dip in tourism during the COVID outbreak affected her work hours and wages, and thus her livelihood. “It’s really scaring me,” she remarked in an interview with KTLA. “How can I pay my rent if I don’t have unemployment and my job isn’t back?” Right now, she said, “I’m just grasping for anything.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his cat. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a novel.

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