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The latest federal financial lifeline intended to help unemployed workers during the pandemic is running out.
The Lost Wages Assistance program, created by a memorandum signed by President Donald Trump in early August, provided some unemployed workers with an additional $300 weekly boost on top of their state-administered benefit. The measure was intended to fill the gap after the $600 weekly boost, provided under the CARES Act, expired in late July, and Congress failed to pass another stimulus package to extend it.
But the latest $44 billion Lost Wages program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, rolled out haphazardly across the country, and workers have been left with drastically reduced state benefits wondering what kind of additional support they can expect, if any at all.
By the September 11 deadline, nearly every state signed on to the program to provide a $300 weekly boost to unemployment pay. Some states, like Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia, kicked in an additional $100 for a total $400 weekly benefit. South Dakota was the only state to decline the federal funding.
FEMA confirmed that states approved for the program would receive a maximum of six weeks of aid for workers unemployed from August 1 to September 5, meaning most workers can expect at most $1,800, and in some states $2,400, worth of federal jobless aid.
States that applied for FEMA funding and reconfigured their unemployment systems right away, including Arizona, began administering aid to residents by mid-August. One of those recipients was Emma Locarnini of Tucson, Arizona, who became eligible for unemployment benefits when the resort where she worked shut down in late March. She told CNBC Make It it took several weeks for the state to administer retroactive pay for the month of August, and by the time she was regularly seeing the supplement hit her account, she received an email that the program was drawing to a close in Arizona.
"It's frustrating — so much of losing my job is totally out of my control. And I don't like not knowing when I might be able to go back to work," she said in August, in response to critics who say providing too much jobless aid discourages people from returning to work. "I'm certainly looking for work elsewhere, but I am competing with so many people. I want to work. I want to be back in the office. I don't want to keep relying on unemployment."
Fortunately for Locarnini, by the time she received her final benefit including the $300 boost on September 8, she had secured a new job as a sales advisor for an independent and assisted-living retirement community.
Others have been less fortunate weathering the worst job market in decades. Roughly 26 million Americans were collecting jobless benefits as of September 5, the most recent available data.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, one resident who goes by the nickname Spike says the state's disbursement of the $300 weekly supplement has been a weekly source of confusion.
Spike, who was previously a location manager at a small business, earns $117 in unemployment benefits from the state.
Under the expired CARES Act policy, he said the extra $600 a week from unemployment "made me feel like I mattered." He used stimulus funds to stock up on basic goods, max out his health savings account, invest in equipment to do online job training and save for a used car to make it to job interviews.
"I'm grateful — for once in my life — to be financially stable and able to contribute more to the economy than in years prior," he told CNBC Make It in July.
After a month of wondering whether his state would take up the Lost Wages funding, Spike finally saw $900 in back pay in early September and believed the remaining aid would come in subsequent weeks. As of this week, however, he says he has not received the remaining $900 in federal aid he's entitled to.
"There was no warning these payments were only a one-time thing," he says of the confusing distribution process, describing the whole situation as "heartbreaking."
Indeed, confusion has been embedded in the roll out of the Lost Wages program at every turn, as each state disburses payments in its own way. North Carolina's Division of Economic Security previously said it would begin issuing final payments on September 16, according to local reporting. Now state officials say they will make final lump sum payments this week. Other states will begin to issue aid weekly, which could make it harder for residents to make up for lost income and pay looming bills. Hawaii, for example, plans to pay people who were out of work from August 1 to September 5 their $300 federal supplement each week from now until the end of October.
Fewer than half of states have begun administering the Lost Wages supplement at all, leaving scores of jobless workers without federal aid for nearly two months. Aid has already ended in at least nine states, including Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.
Workers must earn at least $100 per week in jobless benefits in order to qualify for the Lost Wages supplement. Trump administration officials said this rule is intended to curb fraudulent claims, but critics say the provision leaves out an estimated 1 million of the lowest-paid and most financially vulnerable workers.
In Los Angeles, Martha, who asked her last name not be published to protect her privacy, had her hours working at a furniture store drastically reduced in recent months. With the start of the new school year, she's had to cut down her schedule even more in order to supervise her daughter, whose fourth grade classes are completely online due to the pandemic.
Martha works as a secretary and cashier. She used to work 40 hours per week, earned $2,300 per month and lived paycheck to paycheck. Now that she's down to working 23 hours per week, she qualifies for partial unemployment but only for a benefit of $55 per week. In total, her new monthly income is just $1,200 per month.
"It's unreal," she tells CNBC Make It. "I just maxed out my credit cards and car deferment. I don't know what I'm going to do next month."
For now, Martha spends the morning at home with her daughter to oversee her online learning. Around noon, she brings her daughter into the office so she can work and supervise at the same time. She worries about paying her bills, many of which she's delayed, or making rent on her $1,400 apartment.
"If I find another job, who's going to take care of [my daughter] while I'm working nights?" she says. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Fifty percent of my hours were taken away, and I only get $55 per week from the [California labor department]. I'd like to see how Congress can live off that in Los Angeles."
Still, she worries for other parents who may have more than one young child and can work even less.
Meanwhile, nearly two months since the expiration of the $600 weekly benefit, and with the latest $300 boost running out for many, Congress has yet to come to an agreement on the next stimulus bill to help out-of-work Americans during the pandemic.
The March CARES Act provided two other major enhancements to unemployment policy. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance extended eligibility to workers who don't traditional qualify for aid, including self-employed, independent contractor, freelance and gig workers. Under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, workers can apply for a 13-week extension of jobless benefits on top of what their state offers. Roughly half of all people collecting jobless benefits are drawing from one of these two programs.
Without additional White House and Congressional negotiations, both provisions under the CARES Act are set to expire at the end of 2020.