Personal Finance

The end of $600 unemployment boost and slim job prospects leaves many struggling to survive

Key Points
  • A $600-a-week boost to unemployment benefits ended in late July.
  • Congress is negotiating an extension or replacement. 
  • Meanwhile, families are struggling to make ends meet, and there's no guarantee lawmakers will offer additional aid.
Fancy/Veer/Corbis | Getty Images

Bianca Thomas was always working. Except on Sunday — that was church day.

But in March, everything changed. Thomas lost her job as a prep cook in an eatery catering to Boston Bruins and Celtics season ticket holders. Singing in the church choir, a joy of hers for 13 years, wasn't possible because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A $600-a-week boost to unemployment benefits helped pay the bills, though. Thomas, 60, even managed to pay a few months of rent and phone bills in advance.

But that federal subsidy ended at the end of July – leaving Thomas, who lives in Boston, with just $126 a week in state aid from Massachusetts. She lives alone and doesn't have savings to fall back on.

After buying groceries on Wednesday, she had $9 left. That will have to last until another unemployment check comes on Tuesday.

"I don't know what tomorrow promises," Thomas said. "And it's so scary.

"I have so much faith, but I still get scared because I don't know what this will bring," she added.

$308 a week

More than 30 million Americans are collecting jobless benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's about five times the peak of the Great Recession.

These individuals all lost the $600 federal weekly supplement at the end of July.

Like Thomas, they must now make ends meet with a weekly allotment from their state, as Congress continues to hash out the contours of another financial relief measure.

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In June, states paid $308 a week, or about $1,230 a month, on average, according to the Labor Department. Some states pay as little as $5 or $10 a week.

There's no guarantee any additional aid is forthcoming. Lawmakers are at loggerheads over the scope of a bill.

Democrats want to extend the $600 boost. The House passed a bill in May to continue the aid through early next year. Senate Republicans recently countered with a plan to cut aid to $200 a week, calling the former policy a disincentive to work.

'They'll really suffer'

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is higher than the peak during the 2008-09 financial crisis (10.2% versus 10%, respectively).

While businesses added more than 9 million jobs to their payrolls since May as states gradually reopened, there remain nearly 13 million fewer jobs than before the coronavirus-fueled recession. The pace of job growth showed signs of slowing last month and more than 1 million Americans continue to apply for jobless benefits each week.

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There were about four unemployed people for every job opening in May, according to latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This all amounts to a tough spot for many of the country's unemployed — little jobless aid and not enough jobs to go around.

A federal moratorium on evictions ended at the end of July, as have similar protections in around 30 states — meaning millions of people late on rent or housing payments stand to get evicted in coming weeks.

"We've cut many, if not most, people's unemployment benefit to below the equivalent of $10 an hour," said Betsey Stevenson, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan and former chief economist at the Labor Department.

"If you're dealing with people who didn't have a lot of savings or a buffer to begin with, they'll really suffer unless they get some additional help," Stevenson said.

'I can't survive'

Shane Rybacki, a 32-year-old from Austin, Texas, lost his job in March. He's getting just $104 a week in unemployment benefits from the state, absent a $600 federal supplement that expired in late July. He and his fiancé, Kristen, are expecting their first child on Aug. 23.
Shane Rybacki

Shane Rybacki and his fiancé are expecting their first child on Aug. 23.

But money is tight, and Rybacki is worried.

The 32-year-old Austin, Texas, resident lost his job in March driving for Break It Down, which manages recycling and composting pickups in the area.

Rybacki's fiancé also left her job weeks ago, without paid leave, due to the pregnancy.

The couple has been able to make ends meet due to Rybacki's $644 a week in unemployment benefits, roughly equivalent to the $16 an hour he was getting at work.

But losing the federal subsidy cut their aid to $104 a week, after taxes, from Texas — amounting to an 84% cut to their cash flow.

The family had been living paycheck to paycheck even prior to the lapse in federal benefits and they only have $700 left in the bank. Now, state benefits aren't even enough to cover their $600 monthly rent. They have medical coverage through Medicaid, but Rybacki is concerned some hospital costs associated with child delivery may not be covered.

"I have a kid coming," Rybacki said.  "I need money to feed him and clothe him."

I wasn't prepared to have no money at all," he added. "Not only can I not work, I can't survive."

More than enough

Some out-of-work Americans aren't necessarily in dire straits without the $600 supplement.

The case of Lawrence, 64, a resident of Honolulu, illustrates how divergent some experiences can be. (He requested his last name not be used, for privacy reasons.)

Lawrence took a voluntary furlough in April from Hawaiian Airlines, where he was a crew scheduler. That temporary layoff is supposed to last until Oct. 1.

Even without the extra $600, he is collecting $648 a week from Hawaii, which is the state's maximum weekly payment.

"I hope someone [in Washington] has sympathy, pity, on us little people. We're not wealthy. We're poor, middle-class people.
Bianca Thomas
unemployed prep cook in Boston

It's more than enough for Lawrence to live on. He moved back home to care for his mother, and has low living expenses, he said.

Hawaii is the most generous in the nation with respect to unemployment benefits, Labor Department data show. In June, the state paid recipients $456 a week, on average. On the other hand, Louisiana paid an average $183 a week, the lowest amount.

"The states just vary enormously," Stevenson said of their unemployment payments.

The differences aren't solely attributable to relative wages paid in the state, she said. That means lawmakers' generosity, and not just cost of living, is a factor.

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A 'miracle'

Rybacki has been looking for a new job — to no avail.

"They're really hard to come by right now," he said. "At this point, I'd pretty much be willing to do anything."

Meanwhile, Rybacki has been able to stay afloat by reselling old fitness equipment. He scours Facebook Marketplace for good deals, sometimes fixing broken items. He recently bought a treadmill for $50 and sold it for $200, he said.

"I've been getting lucky," he said. "I had to figure something out."

The job market has also been tough for Thomas, the prep cook from Boston.

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Her industry, food service, has been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic and she's afraid of taking a more customer-facing role, like a cashier, for fear of getting sick.

"I hope someone [in Washington] has sympathy, pity, on us little people," Thomas said of an extension to federal unemployment aid. "We're not wealthy. We're poor middle-class people."

Despite her financial hardship, Thomas is resolved to maintain a positive disposition.

Her faith may be paying dividends.

As we chatted, Thomas received a surprising notification on her phone — one of her choir sisters, who learned of her financial situation, wired over $21 through a cash payment app. Now, she could afford the allergy medication she hadn't been able to afford earlier that day.

"I have $30 now," Thomas said. "I would call that a miracle."