LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For Stephanie Green, a Louisville autoworker, the extra $600 per week she received in unemployment benefits last spring helped feed her two children, for whom she has custody, and bring rent and electricity bills current.
For Jarod Woods, a sales and marketing executive, the extra benefits brought his mortgage current.
Sherry Stiles, who works at a tanning salon, had about $200 in the bank when she finally received weeks of unemployment insurance from Kentucky last month, more than $5,300 in all, including the extra $600.
“My savings was down to nothing,” said the 56-year-old Fern Creek resident. “I was like, wow, I hope nothing else happens.”
Since the pandemic began in mid-March, the federal government has provided an additional $600 per week to every person on unemployment insurance, infusing $2.4 billion into the pockets of Kentuckians and $3 billion to Hoosiers, according to federal statistics through July 11.
Without Congressional action, this is the last week the $600 per week will be paid in Kentucky and Indiana.
The loss of the money would be “devastating” for Kentuckians and the state’s economy, said Dustin Pugel of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive group which supports extending the $600 payments until the economy recovers from the impact of the coronavirus.
What some see as a lifeline, others see an economic hindrance.
U.S. Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called the $600 a “bonus” that Democrats “insisted on” in the CARES Act virus relief package in March.
“That has actually prevented a lot of people from going back to work,” McConnell said in an interview with WDRB earlier this month. “ … I don’t think we ought to pay people more, not to work.”
McConnell predicted that the next virus relief aid package, which Congress is negotiating this week, will include “underwriting and safeguarding basic unemployment insurance,” but not continuing the “bonus.” He said another of direct checks to Americans is possible, particularly people earning less than $40,000 a year.
Josh Bergen, who co-owns a Which Wich sandwich shop in New Albany, Ind., with his wife Hope, said he has had an unusually hard time finding daytime workers for the store. He suspects the federal unemployment aid, which is significantly more than the $7.25 to $10 per hour his shop pays, is keeping workers on the sidelines.
“The applicant pool has just stopped. Not dried up. Stopped,” Bergen said.
Typically, people who receive unemployment benefits can’t continue to get checks if their previous employer offers them work again.
The CARES Act, however, expanded unemployment eligibility to people who normally would not qualify and allowed people to self-certify for special circumstances, such as the loss of childcare or a family member diagnosed with COVID-19.
Pugel, of the Kentucky Center on Economic Policy, said the additional $600 a week has prevented many layoffs by pumping a “large” amount into state economies, such as Kentucky’s, so people aren’t working can still buy groceries and other necessities.
He added that the federal program that expanded unemployment eligibility to cover things like lack of childcare remains necessary for many workers.
Many daycares haven’t reopened or have raised their prices. School districts, such as in Jefferson County, will be starting the year with kids at home learning virtually. Kentucky’s confirmed cases of the coronavirus hit a new daily high on Sunday.
“The real concern is the fact that there is a raging pandemic going on right now, and we have created a jobless benefit to address that problem,” Pugel said.
People who have those special circumstances will still be able to get unemployment benefits through the federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, through the end of the year regardless of what Congress works out this month.
But without the additional $600 per week, those benefits would be paltry.
According to Pugel’s calculations, people receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Kentucky get an average of $788.50 per week currently, which would drop to $188.50 without the extra $600.
Kentuckians receiving regular unemployment benefits would get an average of $282.75, down from $882.75.
Stiles, of Fern Creek, returned to work recently at her tanning salon, but only for four hours a week.
Stiles said she didn’t want to turn down work even though she’d likely be better off with the unemployment checks. (She has applied for partial benefits based on reduced hours).
“I just don’t think that’s right,” she said, “But I am sure there people out there who are doing that.”