Losing $300 a week in unemployment benefits means Pearl Jow has to live off $110 a week.
It means Stephanie Hannah’s family could run out of money in three months. and Angelo Sebazzo is going to find it tougher to pay off his credit cards.
It means hardships for millions all over California, unemployed people who were receiving an additional $300 a week from the federal government for five weeks. But that benefit has ended, and back in Washington, Congress has gone home for a long weekend, stuck in a partisan deadlock over whether to revive it.
Losing the $300 often means incomes dip below what is regarded as low or very low income, according to a new study by the independent California Policy Lab.
It found that a California family with two parents collecting the maximum weekly benefit of $450 per person while supporting one child would be considered by the state “very low income” if they had no other income.
“When you account for the high cost of living in California, the math of trying to survive for multiple months on unemployment benefits alone, especially without an extra federal supplement, really doesn’t add up,” said Till von Wachter, the lab’s faculty director.
Surviving on $110 a week
Without the $300-a-week boost, Pearl Jow, a 53-year-old Palm Desert resident, gets $110 a week in unemployment benefits. It’s been six months since she lost her job at a logistics company, she said.
Her lender is forbearing her mortgage payments for a home she has owned for 16 years. But her homeowner association fee alone is $348 a month. She has been putting the fee on her credit card, Jow said.
“I had $33 in my bank account for the last two months,” Jow said.
“How am I supposed to cover basic bills on $110 a week?” she said. “Literally, I’ve been living on oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches.”
Jow, too, is frustrated at what she sees from the federal government. She wants legislators to imagine what it’s like to spend just a day without knowing how they will find the money to pay their bills.
“They act like they have all the time in the world,” she said. “24 hours is a life or death situation, and no one cares and no one is listening.”
Laid off twice
Sebazzo, a 64-year-old Marine veteran in Lodi who worked as a consultant examining the safety of workplaces, will be getting $450 in unemployment benefits instead of $750.
He’s been laid off twice since the COVID-19 pandemic sent the economy reeling, on March 20 and July 31.
Sebazzo has yet to receive the $300-a-week boost — the state began paying out the money retroactively last week — and said it will help him pay off his credit cards and other bills to prepare for his potential early retirement.
But he still has a mortgage on his house he bought three years ago, and going through four layoffs in the three years hasn’t helped.
He’s already pulled some money out of his 401(k) when he was laid off in 2019. He recognizes he’s more fortunate than others, with his military pension, but he’s still trying to figure out what the future will look like without unemployment insurance, from whether to keep cable TV or the cars he and his family drive.
At 64, he knows it will be difficult to find another job.
“It’s a shame, but unfortunately, that’s the way business is,” Sebazzo said.
Trouble with the bills
In South Lake Tahoe, Stephanie Hannah would understand.
She worked as a sales and marketing director at a hotel until being furloughed and ultimately laid off in July. Without the $300-a-week boost, she said, her unemployment benefit won’t come close to cover her $2,100 a month mortgage.
“I’ve cut back on everything I don’t need” such as cable TV, she said. But “at $1,800 a month, I’ll lose my house.” She gets $450 a week now in benefits, or $1,800 a month.
Hannah’s husband works full-time and she has some savings, but his salary is not enough to pay all of her family’s bills, from utilities to her daughter’s college tuition. Living in South Lake Tahoe is not cheap, Hannah said.
“You can’t cut your electricity off. We’re doing what we can,” she said. “Come January 1, who knows?”
She also said she’s spending six to eight hours a day looking for work, although finding a job in the hard-hit hospitality industry is tough. She has expanded her job search outside of the industry.
“I submitted resumes to companies, and they haven’t even gotten back to me because I haven’t done the jobs before,” she said.
Congress goes home
Whether legislators understand all this is an open question. Unemployed people had been getting an extra $600 a week from late March through late July. When Congress could not agree on continuing a supplemental payment, President Donald Trump authorized the $300 benefit.
Unemployment remains at historically high levels, though, and a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive research group, illustrated the need. It found that in July, as the benefit expired, 13% of California adults reported difficulty getting food. Sixteen percent of adults were behind on their rent.
Congress, though, remains stuck on how to help. Democrats want a $2.2 trillion economic relief package that would include several different ways of helping people, including rental and food assistance, a $600 weekly unemployment supplement and $1 trillion in aid to state and local government.
Republicans want a far smaller package, one that has $300 in extra jobless benefits, no state or local aid. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 25 House members from each political party, has proposed $450 a week and $500 billion in state and local aid.
So far, party leaders are showing little appetite for finding common ground. “Why don’t you go ask the Republicans why they don’t want to see the 14 million hungry children in American who are food insecure or maybe address the needs of millions of American families who are on the verge of eviction….?” asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when asked the impasse.
Asked what number the GOP could accept, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said this week has been devoted largely to “watching Speaker Pelosi talk about how hard she’s stopping everything once again.”
Congress left Washington Thursday. The Senate will return Monday night, the House Tuesday.
Why, wonders Hannah of South Lake Tahoe, can’t lawmakers recognize what people such as her are enduring.
“They are more focused on fighting amongst themselves rather than helping people,” she said. “They have no idea what people are going through.”