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August was a hard month for Donna Crenshaw.
First, she stopped getting an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, which had been helping pay the bills. Absent that subsidy, Crenshaw gets just $33 a week before tax from North Carolina, where she lives just outside of Raleigh.
To make matters worse, Crenshaw, 52, isn’t eligible for a new Trump administration program offering an extra $300 a week in benefits, due to restrictions.
“How could you even eat lunch on $30 a week? It’s not possible,” said Crenshaw, who was furloughed in March from her food-services job. (She requested the employer’s name not be used.)
Crenshaw, who lives alone, desperately needs the money. She’s already deferred three mortgage payments and is afraid of losing her home.
Crenshaw also has chronic health conditions — emphysema, lupus and COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease — and is disabled due to back injuries that have required multiple surgeries. Past domestic violence episodes have also left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She had to skip a doctor’s appointment on Monday because she didn’t have the funds.
“I don’t have a safety net,” Crenshaw said. “I am definitely in dire straits.”
Crenshaw is one of thousands in a similar financial position.
The Trump administration is only giving the federal unemployment subsidy, part of a Lost Wages Assistance program created Aug. 8 by executive fiat, to those who get at least $100 a week in benefits.
Eliza Forsythe, a labor economist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois, estimates that about 6% of people collecting unemployment insurance get less than $100 a week from their state.
That means about 835,000 of the nearly 14 million people getting benefits in mid-August won’t receive the extra $300 a week.
People wait for their numbers to be called at an unemployment event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on July 15, 2020.
Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post via Getty Images
This group largely consists of low-wage, part-time and gig workers, according to an analysis co-authored by Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, and Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
Those workers “face consistently precarious incomes and are at major risks of experiencing personal and economic hardship without access to additional aid,” they wrote.
That hardship coincides with the expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions and similar housing protections that lapsed in more than two dozen states, putting renters and homeowners at risk of being kicked out if they miss a payment.
A $600-a-week supplement enacted by the CARES Act, a federal coronavirus relief law, ended in late July after lawmakers couldn’t agree on an extension.
That left many workers with just their state allotment: $307 a week in July, on average, according to the Labor Department.
Some states pay much less. In Mississippi, for example, the largest sum a worker can expect to take home each week is $235. That amounts to $5.88 an hour, less than the federal minimum wage.
In August, half of Americans collecting jobless benefits couldn’t cover basic household expenses using that aid — nearly double the 29% share in July, when the $600 weekly boost was still flowing, according to a survey published Tuesday by the Morning Consult, a market research firm.
The Trump administration enacted the Lost Wages Assistance program to provide an extra $300 a week in federally funded benefits. (States could opt to kick in another $100, but few have opted to.) Funding for the program is expected to last about four or five weeks.
$100 a week
So far, 41 states — including North Carolina, where Crenshaw lives — have been approved to offer the subsidy. But Crenshaw and other workers can’t access it due to the $100 weekly restriction.
Most states set minimum benefit levels below $100 a week, creating this scenario. Since unemployment benefit levels are tied to a worker’s prior wages, those who are paid less or work fewer hours — arguably the ones who need assistance the most — tend to get near-minimum benefits.
In most states, a full-time job paying the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is enough to get workers over the $100-a-week threshold for Lost Wages Assistance, said Ernie Tedeschi, an economist at Evercore ISI.
But part-time minimum-wage workers or those who don’t hold a steady job throughout the year (like seasonal workers or those with irregular work history) would have a harder time qualifying, he said.
Some full-time contractors — gig-economy workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers — who have side jobs for extra money are also at risk of falling short of the threshold due to a quirk in how their unemployment benefits are calculated.
No other choice
Now, Crenshaw, who is high-risk for Covid-19, sees no alternative but to go back to work since she’s ineligible for Lost Wages Assistance.
But that also puts her in a precarious position — health issues make her vulnerable to Covid-19.
Crenshaw receives around $1,700 a month in Social Security disability benefits. But that leaves her a few hundred dollars short of covering monthly expenses. A part-time job, which paid $10 an hour, helped make up the difference.
Crenshaw had been working a 25-hour work week prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Working full-time hours was impossible due to her disability, she said.
“That was what I needed to help me pay my bills,” said Crenshaw, who worked as a cashier and helped in the store’s bakery. “It was the perfect little job for me — and then Covid-19 hit.”
Federal rules allow individuals to keep getting disability benefits while working. Crenshaw can work up to 25 hours a week and make up to $1,160 a month (an amount regularly adjusted for inflation) without her benefits being adversely affected, she said.
In one sense, Crenshaw is fortunate to have the opportunity to return to work — her employer called on Monday to hire her back. In July, there were still more than 9 million furloughed workers yet to return to their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I’m definitely high-risk. But I don’t really see another choice at this point,” she said.