Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are negotiating a COVID-19 relief package that would preserve federal unemployment programs and provide additional weeks of benefits for people who have been unemployed for more than nine months.
A summary of the latest negotiating framework HuffPost obtained includes an extra $300 per week, plus an extension “of all pandemic unemployment insurance programs by 16 weeks.”
That means the federal unemployment programs Congress created in March as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which are slated to expire at the end of December, would remain in place through the winter and into the spring ― helping millions of workers through the worst wave of coronavirus cases yet.
But extending those programs just preserves the status quo: In most states, the combination of federal and state benefits provides at least 39 weeks of compensation. The new proposal goes further. According to sources with knowledge of the bipartisan framework, lawmakers have agreed to add 16 more weeks of benefits to what those programs provide, meaning the total duration of state-federal unemployment compensation would stretch to 55 weeks.
Workers who lost their jobs in March or April, in other words, would have another 16 weeks of benefits instead of running out in December or January.
The unemployment proposal is part of a broader COVID-19 relief package that includes aid to states, businesses and various other provisions to mitigate the economic fallout from a pandemic that is many times worse than it was when Congress passed the CARES Act.
But it’s anyone’s guess whether the bipartisan negotiation, which Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) are leading, will result in an actual law. Democratic leaders have embraced the compromise framework, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Trump administration have instead continued to offer their own proposals that include provisions Democrats hate, such as McConnell’s four-year clampdown on coronavirus lawsuits.
In their counteroffers, McConnell and the Trump administration have also abandoned the extra weekly benefits they previously supported, though the benefits haven’t been one of the most contentious issues. Democrats have pushed for the extra weeks and sought to bring back a $600 CARES Act supplement that expired in July.
If Congress doesn’t act, nearly 12 million people receiving unemployment benefits from federal programs will abruptly stop receiving them later this month. Also expiring: a moratorium on evictions, a paid leave program and student loan forbearance provided under the CARES Act. Housing debt among unemployed renters has spiked in recent months, and millions more could face eviction.
Extra weeks of benefits are a standard part of the federal government’s response to every recession. In 2010, Congress pushed the total duration of state and federal benefits to 99 weeks.
Continued payments would be crucial to people who got laid off in March and still can’t work, either because their job can’t exist with a contagious disease spreading wildly or because they themselves are at higher risk of severe illness.
Maria G. Gonzalez of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is a corporate travel agent who got laid off in March. Corporate travel has not returned to its pre-pandemic levels, and likely won’t until the there is a widely distributed vaccine.
North Carolina is one of a handful of states that offers much less than the standard six months of unemployment compensation available elsewhere. Gonzalez, 67, said she ran out of jobless pay early in November and has since suffered from constant stress about her finances.
Gonzalez is one of more than 4 million people who have already exhausted the extra benefits provided by the CARES Act, according to a recent analysis of claims data from The Century Foundation.
“It’s not fun. You’re kind of worried about what’s coming around the corner all the time,” Gonzalez said. “You’re not sure who you can turn to for assistance and it’s tough.”
She would likely be able to resume her unemployment claim if Congress passed a bill with the bipartisan framework on unemployment, plus get an extra $300 per week.
She said she doesn’t think it’s fair that she should have to reinvent herself and find a new job after a 30-year career, especially not when vaccines are around the corner and Congress has already shown how easily it can provide economic security when it feels like it.
“I paid taxes all my life toward unemployment insurance, and through taxes I bailed out banks, I bailed out Wall Street, I bailed out the airlines,” she said. “It’s time for them to bail me out.”
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