Citizen Action

Robert Kraig, executive director of Milwaukee-based liberal advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin, calls for an extension of the $600 a week in pandemic unemployment benefits Wednesday during a news conference in front of Eau Claire City Hall.

When unemployment skyrocketed as the novel coronavirus pandemic ramped up in March, Congress passed the CARES Act to provide an extra $600 a week to people who lost their jobs.

Now that the virus’ spread is speeding up in Wisconsin and the pandemic is ramping up across the United States, that federal assistance from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is about to expire — a prospect Citizen Action of Wisconsin executive director Robert Kraig calls unthinkable.

“In Wisconsin we’re literally just a week and a half away from the end of the major thing that’s keeping working families afloat,” Kraig said Tuesday at a news conference in front of Eau Claire City Hall.

The House of Representatives passed a bill to renew the $600 per week in pandemic unemployment assistance, but the measure has stalled in the Senate. The aid is scheduled to cease for jobless individuals in Wisconsin on July 25.

“When they did the original COVID-19 relief in March, no one knew that we would be the worst country in the world in controlling the pandemic,” Kraig said.

Citizen Action, a liberal advocacy group that held similar events Tuesday in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay, is calling for an extension of the aid at least through the end of the year and the creation of a national subsidized jobs program such as that proposed by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Senate Republicans have opposed extending the $600 a week in unemployment benefits, mainly on the ground that it discourages laid-off people from returning to work. In an interview Thursday on CNBC, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested that the administration might support an extension of supplemental unemployment aid but at a reduced level: “We’re going to make sure people are (incentivized) to go back to jobs.”

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said at the Eau Claire event that she has heard from many residents about the importance of the federal pandemic aid.

“We need to make sure that those who do not have a job right now because of the pandemic have the ability to make ends meet,” Emerson said. “That’s how we get through this crisis — by putting people first.”

While it was prudent in March to put an end date on the extra assistance, now is not the time to let it expire, she said, noting that COVID-19 cases are at a record high in Wisconsin in recent days.

Eau Claire City Councilwoman Emily Berge, who also is a Democratic candidate in the 68th Assembly District, cited a study by the Economic Policy Institute estimating that the end of the aid will cost 66,000 jobs in Wisconsin.

Kraig and Berge urged people to call members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation and tell them about the importance of extending the federal jobless aid.

Failure to act, Kraig predicted, will result in a massive acceleration of the negative economic impacts already resulting from the pandemic — businesses failing, families losing their homes and people struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.

“What we’re really calling for is urgency,” Kraig said. “It seems like the Senate is getting to the point where they’re ready to take action, but the question is whether it will be enough.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact: 715-833-9209, eric.lindquist@ecpc.com, @ealscoop on Twitter