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What's At Stake Amid Expiring Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

Nov 21, 2020
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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Americans prepare for a holiday season marked by the ongoing tragedy of the pandemic, millions of people are still out of work while the economy struggles to regain momentum. For many of those without jobs, this is an especially anxious time because two kinds of federal pandemic unemployment benefits approved by Congress back in March are set to expire December 26, the day after Christmas. A new report published by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimates that more than 12 million people will be left with little or no means of support when that funding stops. To learn more about what's at stake, we reached out to one of the co-authors of that report, Elizabeth Pancotti. She's a policy adviser at Employ America, where she focuses on, among other things, unemployment insurance and labor market research. Thanks for joining us.

ELIZABETH PANCOTTI: Thanks so much for having me.

FADEL: We're also joined by two people who lost their jobs in the midst of this pandemic and are dependent on those benefits right now. Mario Sandoval has been out of work since March, when the steakhouse where he worked inside a casino in Las Vegas, Nev., shut down because of COVID. He's also a 38-year member of the culinary union there. Mario, thanks so much for talking to us. I know this period isn't easy.

MARIO SANDOVAL: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: And our third guest is Kate McAfee in Cleveland, Ohio. She was laid off back in April from her job as a chemist. Hi, Kate. Thanks for being here and speaking to us during this tough time.

KATE MCAFEE: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So we'll start with Elizabeth Pancotti. Let's start with the national picture. The headline on your report says, "12 Million Workers Facing Jobless Benefits Cliff On December 26." So that number includes people like Mario and Kate. Describe what you mean by jobless benefit cliff.

PANCOTTI: Yeah. So back in March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which had two temporary programs included in it that extended jobless benefits to workers who are typically not included in the unemployment insurance system, such as gig workers, independent contractors and part-time workers, as well as an extension that provided 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits for workers after they exhausted their state unemployment benefits. Both of those programs are set to end at the end of the year. And so workers who are on those two programs will be cut off from those programs the morning after Christmas.

FADEL: Right. So, Mario, I'm going to turn to you now. You've worked in your job as a server at the steakhouse inside the Binion's Casino in downtown Las Vegas for more than 30 years. And then suddenly, that job was gone. Tell us what it's been like, how you've coped without work the past eight months.

SANDOVAL: Well, I'll tell you, the financial part has been really difficult because I live with my daughter. We share a home together. And before that, we split the bills and that $750 portion that I paid into the total - you know, with the mortgage, the power, gas, everything was $750. And with the $600 monthly benefit that we were getting, at first until August, I could continue. I was continuing to pay that 750.

But now that that's gone, you know, I can't really pay that. So my daughter has been footing the bill. And it's a burden on her. And come December, I have no idea what I'm going to do.

FADEL: And you testified remotely before a congressional committee about being unemployed during the pandemic. What did you tell lawmakers? What was your message to them?

SANDOVAL: Well, my biggest message was to do the right thing for the American people, you know? We need the CARES Act. We need HEROES. I don't care what they call it. The American people need help, you know? We also need our health care. I'm a cancer survivor. I have pre-existing medical conditions. Without insurance, i'm going to pay over a thousand dollars a month in medicine, you know? And...

FADEL: Yeah.

SANDOVAL: I just need - I need to have the right to return to work because I know the business is going to come back to Vegas. And when it comes back, I want the right to go back to work (unintelligible).

FADEL: So the - to be able to return to the job that you were doing.

SANDOVAL: Yes. Yes.

FADEL: So, Kate, I'm going to turn to you now. You've been unemployed since April. And as we mentioned, you're a chemist. Do you think you'll be able to find a job in your field anytime soon?

MCAFEE: Well, I certainly hope so. I'm always looking. I've been interviewed a few times now, but it seems like most of the jobs in this area are very, very competitive at the moment for a few slots that may be open.

FADEL: Yeah. And during this period, how important have these federal benefits been for you? And what does the date December 26 mean for you right now?

MCAFEE: Well, they've been very important for me and my family. I'm married, and we have two kids. And it's - my husband is still employed. He works for the National Park Service. But I was the primary wage-earner for most of our time that we've been married, so losing my income has really been very hard on our finances. But for the entire time that I've been unemployed, we've, you know, cut our expenses as much as possible and saved anything extra that we could.

And what we saved during the summer is gone now. So if I lose the benefits on the 26 of December, we have nothing. Like, we have nothing saved up, and I don't know how we're going to pay for all of the bills that we have to pay.

FADEL: And we're just going into the holiday season. What are your plans?

MCAFEE: Well, it's going to be a pretty lean Christmas for us, but my kids will make do. They'll be fine. They have enough stuff. But we'll just be together. But it's after that that I'm really worried about what comes next because, you know, then the mortgage is due, and everything is due. And I don't know where we're going to come up with that money.

FADEL: Yeah. Elizabeth, I'm going to turn back to you. You make the case in your report that urgent action is needed to help people, millions of people like Kate and Mario and other Americans. What exactly do you think Congress should do?

PANCOTTI: I think there are two things that Congress should do. One, I think they should reinstate the program that topped off unemployment benefits. Back in, you know, March through the summer, they were topped off by $600 per week in addition to the state benefits workers were receiving. And so that program expired on July 31, and that should be reinstated for folks.

Second, I think that, you know, back in the Great Recession, extended benefit programs were extended such that unemployed workers could receive up to 99 weeks of unemployment insurance. And the maximum number of weeks that workers can receive now is 46. And so I think 99 would be a good place to start.

But truly and honestly, I think Congress should look into automatic stabilizers for these policies to say that, look, extended unemployment insurance benefits will be in place until the unemployment rate drops back to the pre-COVID level.

FADEL: Before we let you go, Mario and Kate, I want to ask you both what message you have for the nation's political leaders as you get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving while unemployed. Mario, would you go first?

SANDOVAL: For our political leaders, if we elect you, we are your constituents. I know that they hear people pleading for help, you know, because people are getting kicked out of their homes or in their places that they live in. And there's food lines. I mean, they can't ignore these things. They're happening, you know?

And I'm starting to think it's like the Depression of the '20s - the late '20s, you know? It's just strange to see, you know? I have only seen these things on TV, but now I'm living them, so please help. You know, we're the ones that elected you. You know, help us.

FADEL: Yeah. Kate, what about you? What would you say to political leaders right now?

MCAFEE: Yeah. Just like Mario said, it's us that put you in office. And there isn't anything that's more important in my book than getting our economy and everything moving again in a way that is safe for us during the pandemic. So right now, we are all hurting. And it's not going to help anyone for 12 million people to suddenly have no income at all.

FADEL: Right. That's Kate McAfee in Cleveland. She's been unemployed since April. We also heard from Mario Sandoval, who lost his job in a Las Vegas steakhouse back in March, and Elizabeth Pancotti, co-author of a report published by the Century Foundation on the pandemic benefits cliff facing millions of unemployed Americans next month.

Thank you all for being here today.

MCAFEE: Thank you.

SANDOVAL: Thank you, Leila.

PANCOTTI: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.