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What $600 Can Do

Millions of people are in danger of losing a benefit that has kept their heads above water. These are some of their stories.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Despite early promises from the president of a swift economic bounce back from the pandemic, the Labor Department’s jobs report on Thursday estimated that more than 31 million people were claiming unemployment benefits. At the same time, the unemployment insurance benefit established in March’s stimulus bill—which grants laid-off workers an additional $600 each week—is set to expire at the end of the month. As Congress continues to debate the terms of a new stimulus package, Republicans are attempting to scrap or drastically lower that benefit against the recommendations of a number of economists (and basic common sense and decency).

With the end date for that much-needed unemployment assistance quickly approaching, we asked several laid-off workers across different industries, many in the states hit hardest by the pandemic, to explain how they’ve navigated the unemployment system, what the $600 supplement has meant during a public health crisis, and how they see their jobs changing in the future. 

Latasia, 21, Georgia 

The extra $600 actually gave me chances I never had before. I was able to pay off some of my school fees. My job paid $8-$9 hourly, and I was just getting by on that. I wish I could find a job that pays over $11, but it’s hard.  

It also allowed me to not return to a job in the service industry I had to travel by two trains and a bus to get to, plus the fact that cases here were still high when my job reopened. I knew the $600 would end sooner or later, but finding work has been difficult. I had the perfect job lined up before everything happened. Covid took that away from me. 

I’m hoping the government does something to help, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t. Without the $600, I’ll be bringing in only about $200 a week. I have rent and other bills to pay. I want to return to school, but it’s not cheap.

Chris, 33, New York

I work in retail and, before the pandemic, picked up a weekly shift at a bar to make extra cash. On a really good night there, I used to be able to make $400, but that was rare. 

Things are reopening in New York, but I feel really funny about it. It’s too soon. When it first started, the bars became these absolute party zones. People seemed like they wanted to forget everything, like: Let’s just go drink at the bar.

I went back to the bar where I work at to see how things were, and it felt unsafe. I was really uncomfortable. Since I was making enough with unemployment, I decided not to pick the shift back up. The risk didn’t seem worth it.

It’s weird, though. I have more money now than I ever have, and it’s because of the $600 a week. I’ve been able to save, but it feels like emergency savings. Shops are closing all over New York City. If my job closes down in two months, this money isn’t going to carry me for that long in terms of rent and groceries. It will run out fast. 

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do when I see my weekly deposit go from $900 to $250, which is what I make at the shop. At first I felt guilty about not going back to work at the bar, but now I really don’t. It’s not safe. Our fucking government has the money to help people stay home. 

Thomas, 35, New York

The pandemic unemployment benefit has been the only thing keeping our family afloat. I’ve been a union member for 15 years and never had to worry about losing insurance as I’ve always worked enough qualifying hours in a six-month period. Our daughter, our first child, is eight months old. I never imagined we’d be in financial distress and at risk of losing our health insurance. 

 The people who didn’t have enough hours for this current period were credited and allowed to keep their insurance, but we haven’t gotten an update about the next six-month period, which we are rapidly approaching. Now I’m worried about having to pay for insurance, but with what extra money? The pandemic benefit is simply life and death for entire families.

Andrea, 30, Wisconsin

The full benefit has been enough to completely cover my rent, groceries, and transportation. It felt amazing making a living wage for once. Before the pandemic, I made less than half of my unemployment benefits and was living paycheck to paycheck. Life was more of a struggle then.

Even though we were on lockdown, the everyday stress of “how am I going to pay my bills or afford food this month?” disappeared. It felt like a paradox. The world was—is?—collapsing around us, but I was able to finally afford to live. I almost felt guilty for feeling relieved, but I mostly felt enraged that the government has the ability to provide a safety net for its citizens, yet it took a global pandemic for them to prove it. 

Alison, New York

The restaurant where I was working laid off the staff when the mayor ordered restaurant closures. I had to treat applying for unemployment like it was a full-time job—it took me probably a week of calling to get through. There were a few days where I’d call the unemployment office multiple times throughout the day and always get a busy signal. And then, eventually, I started just hitting redial over and over and over. It took maybe two or three hours of doing that to get through, and then I was on hold for another hour before I finally spoke to someone.

I’m staying with my parents, and with the Covid unemployment supplement about to end, I’ve decided to let go of my apartment in New York. Whatever money I have in my bank account has to last me until I feel safe enough to go back to work, and I don’t know when that will be. I’m worried about how long I’ll be able to survive and how much I’ll have to financially lean on the people around me to get by. People are having to put their lives at risk in order to keep businesses going, and I don’t think it’s safe. I mean, if I felt like it was safe, I would be back at work. 

Kayla, 21, Minnesota 

The $600 let me not go back to a job in the tourism industry where they were not taking proper steps to protect us, even after employees co-signed on a letter of grievance. In the announcement of their plans to open, they told us they couldn’t guarantee PPE for workers, and, most damning to me, they wouldn’t require masks for customers. This is a cruise boat with windows that can’t open and one open-air deck. It would be close quarters, even with social distance. Every day, I see their boats go out full of people, and I feel so, so grateful I was able to leave thanks to the $600. 

Chad, New York

I was laid off from my restaurant job when the city ordered the shutdowns. I’m worried now that unemployment benefits will expire, and it’ll be a long time before I can find a job. The restaurant where I worked was on the higher end—we made good money there. So I’m scared not only that it’s going to be a while until I can start working, but also that it’s going to be an even longer while before I’ll make that kind of money again.

With outdoor dining and restaurant reopenings, I’m also thinking about the power dynamic in restaurants between the guests and the workers. It seems like all of the expectations around safety protocols are placed on the worker. I’ve heard stories from people who are back at work now that they’re having a hard time navigating how to request that customers wear their masks, and customers not really understanding why.

I think it’s difficult to go back to work at the moment. The income right now is extremely precarious—I know multiple people that have gone back to work and have been fed complete lies by restaurant owners, or totally manipulated around expectations of what they will be paid. I think the reopenings are not at all about providing work for people. I would not feel safe going back to work right now.

Mark, 32, New York

I work in theater and after everything got canceled in mid-March, I started looking into unemployment insurance. Navigating the unemployment system here was chaotic and took weeks, but I did eventually get through. The combined standard unemployment and pandemic benefit of $600 is less than I would be making if I was working, but since my expenses have gone way down things have actually been pretty comfortable. I’ve been able to pay my share of the rent, pay for groceries, and even put some money away in savings in anticipation of the end of the benefit on July 31. 

I’ve been following the news closely, and my biggest concern right now is that the Republicans want to end or drastically lower the $600 weekly benefit as a way of pushing people back to work. Apart from the fact that people should not be forced to choose between their health and their financial security, I cannot go back to work because the theater industry is nonexistent right now. The consensus in my industry is that theaters will not open up until January, at the very earliest, and likely not until next summer or fall. I’m applying to a lot of nontheater jobs right now, but it feels like very few companies are actually hiring. I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about it.