For Liz Carey, the additional $600 unemployment payment every week during the COVID-19 pandemic at least has eased the financial stress of this unsettling time.
Carey, 26, lost her job at SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar when the downtown Eau Claire business shut down for Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order. Her household suffered a double whammy because her husband, Colin, a full-time manager at the coffee shop, also was out of work when the doors closed.
With the shop yet to reopen four months later, the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation has been a lifeline for the Careys, who Liz estimated had enough savings to carry them through for two months at most.
“We relied on the coffee shop for all of our income and just to stay afloat,” Liz Carey said, “so we were really thankful when the extra $600 apiece starting coming through. That was super, super helpful.”
But the Careys and millions of other Americans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic are at risk of losing those supplemental unemployment benefits, which are set to expire at the end of this month.
Congress this week is debating whether to extend those benefits or approve other stimulus measures to boost an economy hit hard by side effects of COVID-19. When the coronavirus pandemic exploded in March and local authorities shut down large parts of the U.S. economy, the Trump administration and Congress softened the blow by approving stimulus checks for most households and the extra payments for newly jobless Americans on top of regular unemployment compensation.
Liz Carey was one of several people who shared their pandemic unemployment stories this week online with the progressive group Opportunity Wisconsin to show the impact of the potential end of the program.
Sarah Johnson, 28, operations manager and creative director of downtown Eau Claire retailer Odd Humyns, also lost her paycheck when the pandemic struck and relied on the federal aid to pay her bills, including payments on a mortgage, car, credit cards and student loans.
Even though it took Johnson seven weeks to get approved for unemployment compensation, she knows she is one of the fortunate ones because she is married, her husband has maintained his job other than enduring a monthlong furlough and they don’t have any children to support.
“There are people going through the same thing who don’t have a second income, who can’t pay their bills,” she said. “We’re all in this together, but we all have different bills to pay.”
In addition to helping her keep up with monthly bills, the extra $600 payments have enabled Johnson to continue to use a portion of her income to support other small businesses in the community.
If the benefits end, experts have said the impact will reverberate throughout the economy. Not only were nearly 17 million fewer Americans employed in June than in February, but jobless workers have been collecting a total of nearly $19 billion a week in the supplemental aid, some of which has been pumped back into the economy, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
The research shows that recipients in the Federal Reserve’s Ninth District, which includes all or part of six Upper Midwestern states including 26 counties in northwestern Wisconsin, have been receiving more than $350 million a week through the emergency program.
At a virtual meeting last week with the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., spoke strongly against the $600 payments, saying the practice is keeping people from rejoining the workforce.
“One of the biggest problems they’re having now is getting people to come back to work,” he said of businesses.
Calling the federal government’s addition to unemployment benefits “a very perverse incentive” because it has resulted in some people making more in unemployment compensation than they did from their wages at a job, Johnson said it should end as scheduled at the end of this month.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said at the meeting that ending the federal aid to jobless workers entirely at the end of this month is too soon but that extending it through the rest of the year would be too long.
With the future of the pandemic payments in limbo, so are Sarah Johnson’s finances.
“I’m not able to plan for the future,” she said. “I don’t know what my income will look like.”
Likewise, Carey said it’s difficult not knowing where one’s next paycheck will come from or how big it will be.
While Carey expects SHIFT to reopen in August for takeout orders, she doesn’t know how many hours she and Colin will be able to work.
“Everything is incredibly uncertain right now,” Liz Carey said, acknowledging that the couple is lucky to have jobs to go back to at all.
One thing is sure: Money will be tighter if the federal aid is allowed to expire as scheduled.
“We will survive — at least for a while,” Carey said. “But it just depends on what this all looks like and how long it lasts.”