Jobless Long Islanders say they fear the worst when the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits they've been receiving comes to an end this weekend.
Unless Congress acts to extend the bonus, authorized through July 31 as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, Sunday will mark the end of the final week for which Long Islanders can receive the enhanced payment under the state Department of Labor's payment schedule.
The controversial program has meant that some workers have received more on unemployment than they earned while working. But for many of the 193,000 Long Islanders left unemployed by the pandemic, even with the extra $600 they're barely getting by. And with the economy thrown into a tailspin by the coronavirus and resulting shutdown of nonessential businesses, prospects for finding a new job have dimmed. The Island faces the long-term loss of up to 375,000 jobs, according to a report commissioned by Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Losing the extra $600 will be hard, said Osmond Fletcher of Brentwood. Fletcher, 61, said he earned more working two jobs — as a real estate agent and Uber driver — before the shutdown than he has received from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides jobless benefits to gig workers and others not covered under traditional unemployment insurance.
He said the pandemic has put people across the Island in the same shoes that he and many of his neighbors have been in for years.
“Congressmen and senators are making decisions whether to give $600 to somebody like they’re doing some great tremendous thing. Those people are making six figures working a few hours a day,” he said. “The people that are working here are working two or three jobs to maintain their situation.”
Fletcher said he'll be OK, with or without the $600.
“I’ve always had more than one stream of income,” he said. “As long as I have my health and strength and my brain is working, I’m going to figure something out.”
With the federal supplement, eligible New Yorkers were receiving anywhere from $782 to $1,104 a week in jobless benefits, depending on their most recent wages. When the supplement ends, those weekly payments will drop back to New York’s regular unemployment benefit level, with weekly payments ranging from $182 to $504.
Despite the looming deadline, Republicans have had a hard time agreeing on their approach and congressional leaders have not begun formal negotiations on the next coronavirus relief bill. A final bill might not pass until the first or second week of August.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to unveil the Republican version of the legislation on Monday.
That proposal, a starting point for the negotiations with Democrats, will not include many measures in the House Democrats’ $3 trillion bill, but will include some form of unemployment insurance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House on Thursday before meeting with McConnell.
“The unemployment insurance — we’re going back up to see the new language and work through that,” he said. “We’re not going to pay people more to stay home than to work. So we’re looking at something that looks like a 70% wage replacement and working on the mechanics.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his morning address on the Senate floor Thursday sharply criticized Republicans' decision to seek a cut in unemployment benefits.
“If you’ve lost your job through no fault of your own, and can’t go back to work because this administration has mismanaged the crisis, Republicans want you to take a pay cut in the middle of this crisis,” he said.
“Worse still,” Schumer added, “because Republicans dithered and delayed for so long, there will be an interruption in unemployment benefits.”
While some employers and elected officials have criticized the $600 supplement as a disincentive to work, many economists argue the extra payments are not just propping up the individuals receiving them — they're propping up the entire economy.
John A. Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association business group, said Islanders and Americans across the country need continued support for the economy’s sake.
Rizzo said we have "tens of millions of unemployed people" and the loss of enhanced aid makes matters worse. “If they’re getting a $600 a week cut, of course that’s going to have an effect on them, on spending, and on the economy.”
If unemployed Islanders aren’t provided some additional relief, the broader consumer-based economy could suffer, he said. “That could potentially have devastating effects on spending unless people are made whole.”
Seventy percent of economic activity, on Long Island and across the country, depends on consumer spending, according to data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The extra $600 has been “a lifesaver,” said Barbara Levine of Oceanside, who was laid off in March from her telemarketing job of 22 years at an insurance company. Even with it she said she is “living hand to mouth.”
“Losing the job and not getting the $600 … I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Levine, 89, fighting back tears. “It's going to impact me tremendously because I’m supporting my youngest daughter."
For some local residents, the pandemic only added to their existing unemployment woes.
Southampton resident Christen Mann, 48, a former hotel manager, said she had exhausted the standard 26 weeks of state jobless benefits before the coronavirus hit the United States, and has only been able to receive aid — including the extra $600 — through the 13-week federal extension of benefits authorized under the CARES Act.
Under another federal program, Mann and others collecting state unemployment benefits can continue to collect for up to another 20 weeks, for a total of 59 weeks.
“This extra $600 would be the lifeline that a lot of people need,” Mann said. “I think right now we need to look at the reality of what is happening in New York and Long Island specifically, and see that people need help.”
“I started out very discouraged,” Mann said of her job search before COVID. With the hospitality industry depressed by the virus, “Now it’s a little depressing. You know there is nothing that you can do. This is a situation beyond your control.”
Tyre Brooks, an out of work HVAC electrical engineer, said he was let go only two weeks into his most recent job as officials instituted the state’s economic shutdown in March.
“I want to get off [unemployment] but right now I need it,” said Brooks, who graduated from Farmingdale State College last year.
To make matters worse, Brooks said, he’s struggled to find a new position despite his education in a field normally filled with opportunity. Many of the engineer jobs he’s applied for require more years of experience, and he’s been told he’s overqualified for lower level technician positions.
“I was looking forward to building my career … and then the pandemic happened,” he said.
Like many other Islanders reliant on the enhanced benefits, Brooks said he’s now considering a move out of the region to a lower cost area with potentially more work opportunities.
“The extra $600 would be helpful but at the same time I’m not looking to be on unemployment any longer,” he said. Ultimately, as the end of the $600 bonus draws closer, Brooks said he has to figure out a plan if he can’t land a new job. “Time is ticking.”
Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said the bigger question beyond whether Congress will continue the extra $600 is whether the region will reevaluate the systems in place that make reaching economic equity a struggle for the Island’s poorest residents.
“We have to look at the big picture,” Sanin said. “The reality is that families who were struggling before COVID are now in crisis.”
Sanin said that the potential loss of the extra money will be “devastating” to many struggling families on the Island and should be avoided, but it’s important for elected officials and community leaders to use the current moment as an opportunity to reinvent the structure and accessibility of social services on the Island.
“We have to emerge stronger,” she said. “Unless we talk about this as a moment of reform and mean it and are committed to changing our structures … we’re going to be in this for a really long haul.” — with Tom Brune
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