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Federal Unemployment Benefits To Expire Soon. What's Next?

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A $600 a week federal benefit for unemployed people is set to go away at the end of this month, and it's not clear that Congress has the political will to pass an extension. Meanwhile, in many states, new outbreaks are forcing economies to shut back down. And the unemployment rate is now higher than at any time during the Great Recession. So we wanted to talk to some of the people who've lost their jobs in this pandemic. I'm joined now by Alicia Gonzales, who worked at a Chick-fil-A on a college campus in Tempe, Ariz.

Welcome, Alicia.

ALICIA GONZALES: Hi.

MCCAMMON: And Kim Robinson lives in New Orleans. She was employed by a staffing agency and did support services for companies like Shell.

Thanks for being here, Kim.

KIM ROBINSON: Thank you. Hello. How are you guys doing?

MCCAMMON: And Emily Guill was working at a hotel in Portland, Ore.

Hi, Emily.

EMILY GUILL: Hi.

MCCAMMON: You've all been out of work for several months now. And so I want to start with how you're each getting by right now. Let's start with you, Alicia. How have you been getting through the last few months?

GONZALES: The last few months, I have been getting by - is my PUA, which is the unemployment - the pandemic one. And I've been pretty much relying on that. We've been having to cut some things out.

MCCAMMON: Can you give me some examples? Would you mind?

GONZALES: For one, my boyfriend's medication. He ended up getting sick in the middle of all of this. And his medicine was really expensive, so we had to cut it, you know, cut it in half just so we could afford it. Sometimes his leg will get really big from his blood clot. It's kind of scary.

MCCAMMON: And, Emily, what about you? How have you been getting by?

GUILL: Well, the unemployment benefit that I'm receiving, including the extra $600 a week, does pay for my basic expenses. But while I was waiting for the unemployment money to begin - because it takes a while for you to start receiving payments - I did manage to spend the majority of my savings. So once the $600 a week - the extra benefit - ends, I have no safety net. And I don't know how I'll be able to pay my bills.

MCCAMMON: Are there resources you've been exploring, people you've been asking for help? Do you have a plan B right now?

GUILL: I can ask my family. They will be able to help me a little bit, but they can't pay all of my monthly bills. And I do think that's a big ask to ask them to support me. And I don't really have much of a plan B at this point. I'm concerned about going into deep debt and ruining my credit. I'm worried about not being able to pay my rent and having - maybe facing eviction or breaking my lease, which comes with its own financial penalties. I've considered selling my car, which is a major expense. But then I'm worried that if I get rid of my car, what am I going to do if I can't live in my apartment anymore? So it's a lot of pretty terrible options, I think.

MCCAMMON: And, Kim, how about you?

ROBINSON: Much like Emily, I receive the maximum employment in Louisiana, which is 247 plus the pandemic, which is 600. That gives me roughly about 847 a week in Louisiana. I was able to pay some of my bills. I live with my daughter. And like Emily, I don't really have a plan B. I've been on my job for quite a while. And with the 600 ending, we still have bills - light, water, gas, rent has to be paid.

MCCAMMON: A lot of states and cities are pausing evictions - or at least they were in the early days of the pandemic - but some of those moratoriums are going away, including in Arizona, where Alicia lives. How worried are each of you about your housing in particular?

GONZALES: I live with my grandma. And her house is - she paid off her house, but it's just keeping everything on pretty much. I have four kids. And, you know, my grandma, I take care of my grandma. She had cancer. She's 84. And it kind of worries me because I'm usually the one that will help her. Now I'm stuck. Now we're just, you know, debating on what we're going to pay and what we're going to - what we can afford to owe later.

MCCAMMON: And, Emily, you said - you mentioned keeping your car in case you were to lose your housing. I mean, how much of a threat does that feel like?

GUILL: I honestly - I couldn't tell you. At the beginning, our landlords - I believe it was at the end of March - our landlord sent a letter to everyone saying that if we were having financial troubles and were unable to pay our full rent amount, that we could reach out to them and they would take a portion. And then the rest of it would just be calculated up, and then we would owe it as back rent. I don't know how I would be able to pay off thousands of dollars of back rent when I still am not working. The hotel where I was working has told me that they won't be able to rehire me until next spring, if at all. And there are no other jobs really to get. I've looked. Either I'm underqualified or way overqualified for everything out there. Or it's part-time, which isn't going to pay the bills and disqualifies me from unemployment. So it's all bad.

ROBINSON: It really is because even with myself coming from the industry that I come from, you know, all the jobs moving forward is remote. Everybody can't work from home. That will take months to retrain, even with myself being computer savvy or whatever. You would have to learn, you know, the industry.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Alicia, I heard you there. I mean, how does - how has your experience been looking for work right now?

GONZALES: It's still hard. It's really hard 'cause then I think about - I know I need to get out there and find a job. But then it's like, you step back and try to think, like, is it worth going back out there? Because this is such a hot spot. It - you know, we're the worst for the COVID. So it's kind of scary to even, you know, think about going back. But it's like, I know I need to because, like I have no other choice.

MCCAMMON: Emily, as you think about - as you look for jobs - and I know you haven't had a lot of luck with that yet - but as you look for jobs, how much are you worrying about not just the financial side of this but the health side?

GUILL: Oh, that's probably a bigger worry for me than the financial side of things. Honestly, if I do go back to some sort of a job, I would not qualify for my health insurance that I'm receiving now. So then I'm going to be putting myself at risk, and then I don't have health insurance anymore. And then if I do get sick, I can't work and I don't have health insurance. So it just doesn't make any sense.

MCCAMMON: Before I let you all go, I just want to ask, what do you wish Congress knew about the situation you're in right now?

GONZALES: That it's real.

ROBINSON: That they should listen to the common people. I want Congress to know that they're dealing with real people out here, real humans. The pandemic insurance - that's one, of course, because they could have at least get this under wraps. They could have at least extended that until December.

GUILL: And they've had the opportunity to do so.

ROBINSON: Yes, they have.

GUILL: This deadline of July is not new. When they originally passed the CARES Act, that was to go until July. And the thought there was that we would have had this pandemic under control by now, like many of the countries in the rest of the world have done. They're all back to work. They're playing baseball. They're hanging out and having parties. Meanwhile, we're stuck in our homes, no end in sight. And now there are millions of us that are still unemployed, cannot go back to work even though we would all love to be able to go back to work and continue to make a living and pay our bills, see our friends. And they're going to start evicting people. And people can't pay for food. They're waiting in line at food banks. And it's just very frustrating.

ROBINSON: It is. And I work at a food bank - not work, volunteer sometimes because I just have nothing to do, Emily. Sometimes - once a week, I pass out at the food - it's unbelievable the people that come through there, just goes to show you people need. This is the fourth month, and people still are at pantries. It's unbelievable, unbelievable.

MCCAMMON: That's Kim Robinson in Louisiana, Emily Guill in Oregon and Alicia Gonzales in Arizona. Thank you all so much for talking with us.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

GONZALES: Thank you.

GUILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.