Without $600 Weekly Benefit, Unemployed Face Bleak Choices

Latrish Oseko, 39, sits with her daughter, at a hotel in Newark, Del., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, where they have been staying. (Hannah Yoon/The New York Times)
Latrish Oseko, 39, sits with her daughter, at a hotel in Newark, Del., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, where they have been staying. (Hannah Yoon/The New York Times)

When Latrish Oseko lost her job last spring, government aid helped prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

A $1,700 federal stimulus payment meant that when her 26-year-old car broke down, she could replace it. The $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits from the federal government allowed her to pay rent and buy food. When her day care provider closed, she was able to get her 4-year-old daughter a subscription to ABCmouse, an online learning app.

But the federal money has run out, and talks in Washington over how to replace it have broken down.

So Oseko, 39, is spending much of her time sitting in the Delaware hotel room where she has lived since her landlord kicked her out at the end of July, applying for jobs on her phone while watching the debate play out on the local news.

“I’m glued to it because I want to know, is there going to be hope for me?” she said. “They’re fighting, and I have to watch them fight, but they have a place to sleep at night.”

Until a few days ago, most analysts expected Congress to agree on a new emergency spending bill that would include at least a partial extension of the extra unemployment benefits, perhaps including retroactive payments for the period when the program lapsed.

But negotiations stalled, and in an appearance at his golf club in New Jersey on Friday, President Donald Trump said that if no deal was reached, he would issue an executive order extending the extra benefits in some form. It is unclear whether he has the authority to do so or how long it will take for states to start paying out the benefits if he does.

For many of the 30 million Americans relying on unemployment benefits, it could already be too late to prevent lasting financial harm. Without the extra $600 a week, which ran out at the end of July, they will need to get by on regular state unemployment benefits, which often total a few hundred dollars a week or less. For many families, that will not be enough to prevent eviction, hunger or mounting debt that will make it harder to climb out of the hole.

Households and the broader economy are particularly vulnerable at this moment. Eviction moratoriums are expiring or have expired in much of the country, although Trump threatened to bypass Congress to reinstate a partial federal moratorium. The Paycheck Protection Program, which helped thousands of small businesses retain workers, ends this week.

There are already signs that the economy has slowed down this summer as virus cases have surged in much of the country. On Friday, the Labor Department reported a net gain of 1.8 million jobs in July, a smaller increase than in May or June. Many economists warn that layoffs could begin rising again without more government support. Food banks said they are bracing for a new wave of demand.

Before the pandemic, Oseko and her family were making ends meet, albeit with little margin for error. She earned $15 an hour as a contractor doing data entry. Her boyfriend earned a bit less cleaning dormitories at the University of Delaware. They were able to rent a two-bedroom house near a park where their daughter could play.

When the pandemic hit, Oseko’s hours were cut, and her boyfriend was furloughed. Then, in May, she lost her job altogether. In the midst of that crisis, another one appeared: Their landlord sold her building and gave them 60 days to leave. They moved out last week and are burning through their meager savings at a rate of $76 a night at a Delaware motel that is filling up with families in the same predicament.

Without a job, Oseko hasn’t been able to find a new apartment; without an apartment, it has been hard to find a job.

“The jobs that I am qualified for want me to work from home, but I have no home,” she said.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has disproportionately affected low-wage workers like Oseko who have little in savings. Research from the last recession found that when unemployment benefits ran out, people cut their spending on food, medicine and other necessities, suggesting they were able to do little to prepare for the drop in income.

The more generous benefits offered during this recession may have allowed families to save some money, but those savings won’t last long, particularly when food prices are rising at the fastest pace in years.

As a result, families are being forced to make decisions with lasting consequences.

When Jason Depretis and his fiancee lost their Florida restaurant jobs in early March, they started falling behind on their rent and their car payment. The $600 unemployment supplement was a lifeline, allowing them to hold on to their home and their car. But on July 28, that lifeline snapped: The repo man showed up for the car on the day that their landlord delivered a three-day notice of eviction.

With the extra $600 a week, Depretis, 42, would probably have been able to pay enough to hold off both creditors. Without it, he had to choose. He paid his landlord $650 to stave off eviction and watched the car be towed away.

But it was a terrible time to lose the car. He had found a job starting in September at a restaurant, but it is 45 minutes away, and there is no bus service that corresponds with his hours. The closest food bank is 30 minutes away, and he can’t get there without a vehicle. He said he didn’t know how he and his fiancee would put food on the table for themselves and their two children.

“Without the $600, there’s absolutely no way that my family’s going to make it,” he said.

For families like Depretis’, even a temporary loss of income can be the start of a downward spiral, said Elizabeth Ananat, a Barnard College economist who has been studying the pandemic’s impact on low-wage workers. Wealthier families may be able to draw on savings to get through until Congress reaches a deal. But for lower-income households, even a temporary lapse in benefits can have lasting consequences. An eviction can make it hard to rent in the future. Having a car repossessed can make it hard to find another job. And for children, periods of hunger, homelessness and stress can have long-term effects on development and learning.

“Children cannot smooth their eating over the year,” Ananat said. “Families that do not have access to credit cannot smooth their food, their electricity, any of their necessities.”

Many Republicans argue that the extra benefits were keeping recipients from looking for work, especially because many were getting more on unemployment than they had made on the job. Business owners have complained that they are struggling to fill positions.

But several studies have found no evidence that the supplement was discouraging job hunting, and many workers appear to be accepting jobs even when the pay is less than their unemployment benefits. And by injecting billions of dollars into the economy each week, the benefits almost certainly prevented even more layoffs.

The lapse in benefits will push some people to return to work. But that decision, too, can carry costs.

When the pandemic hit, Enrique Guzman, a fleet service clerk at Los Angeles International Airport, was given the choice: to keep working or to stay home and receive a portion of his income, the equivalent of 10 hours a week.

Guzman, 27, decided to stay home. He has asthma, which puts him at a higher risk of complications if he were to catch the coronavirus, and he lives with his girlfriend and her mother, whose age, 51, makes her vulnerable to the virus. Between unemployment benefits and the partial paychecks from the airline, he was able to bring in $1,050 a week — less than he earned working full time but enough to support his girlfriend and her mother.

But without the extra money, Guzman can no longer afford the $1,875 rent for their two-bedroom apartment in Montebello, California, plus the cost of utilities, food, and his student and car loan payments.

On Monday, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, he put on his uniform and returned to the airport for his first shift since the pandemic started. Guzman said he had no other choice.

“It wasn’t something that I wanted to do, but I’m the only income in my household now, and I needed to go back to work so we can afford to pay our rent, afford to pay our bills,” he said. “I’m putting myself at risk so that we can afford to stay afloat.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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