Confusion Over End of $600 Unemployment Benefit
NEW YORK – Many out-of-work Americans counting on receiving an extra $600 a week through the end of July may be surprised to discover that benefit will disappear nearly a week earlier than they expected.
The additional $600 in weekly jobless benefits provided by the federal government is officially set to end July 31. But states will pay it only through the week ending July 25 or July 26, a significant blow to unemployed workers counting on that money to bolster state benefits that average just $370 a week.
“The (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) $600 can be paid for weeks ending no later than the week ending prior to Friday, July 31, 2020,” the U.S. Department of Labor said in a statement. “For all states except (New York), that is Saturday July 25th. New York’s end date is Sunday, July 26th.”
The confusion lies in the fine print. Unemployment benefits are paid by states on a weekly or biweekly basis with a defined end date on Saturday or Sunday. But the federal legislation known as the CARES Act, which authorized the additional compensation, says the benefit will end “on or before July 31” – a Friday.
That means, given the payment schedules of most states, the last week of the extra $600 payments will end the prior Saturday or Sunday. A Trump administration official said the CARES Act legislation is inaccurate as written. Efforts to reach lawmakers who participated in drafting the legislation were unsuccessful.
The technicality apparently led to confusion, with some states mistakenly listing July 31 as the end date.
New York state’s department of labor said it would switch the end date on its website for the additional $600 benefit from July 31 to the week ending July 26 after USA TODAY inquired about it.
To avoid any confusion, Alabama’s Department of Labor said it will alert those who receive benefits that their extra income bump will end after July 25.
“We will be messaging it at least two weeks in advance,” Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the state’s labor department, said in an email.
The $600 is part of the CARES Act, a $1.8 trillion package Congress passed to help the nation weather the economic storm brought by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered businesses, slowed spending and erased a staggering 22 million jobs in just two months.
In 13 weeks, 45.7 million people filed first-time claims for jobless benefits as the unemployment rate soared to 13.3%, close to the highest level since the Great Depression.
The extra $600 payment provided a vital boost, significantly increasing the assistance to those who had lost work. And even economists expected it to last through the end of July.
“We’ve all being saying it’s July 31st, but it’s not,” says Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Checks that are $600 lighter will mean that already struggling Americans will have to pull their belts even tighter, economists say, and it may take even longer for the battered economy to regain its footing.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters Tuesday that it was important to continue the benefit at a time when the country is still fighting the pandemic, especially as moratoriums lift on when renters can be evicted from their homes. “It puts money in people’s pockets,” the Ohio Democrat said. “We’re going to see a massive number of people evicted.”
For Melissa Rusk of Bradenton, Florida, the thought of losing the $600 federal subsidy for even one week is almost too much to bear. “I would say it’s just about life or death in some situations,” she said. “It can potentially mean the difference between being able to help my husband pay bills.”
Rusk, 36, lost her job at a recreational vehicle rental facility at the end of April. Her husband still works a warehouse job, but his income doesn’t cover the expenses for their family of six, which includes four children ages 7 to 18.
Without the federal subsidy, and with the numbers of new coronavirus infections skyrocketing in Florida, Rusk fears she will be forced to take a customer-facing job that could put her family, including her mother, at risk for contracting COVID-19.
“I would have to literally put my life at risk and just take the chance and hope to God that I don’t get sick,” she said.
The earlier-than-anticipated ending of the program will likely put more pressure on Congress in July when lawmakers plan to negotiate another possible coronavirus emergency package.
“Lawmakers think they have until the end of July to figure this out,” Shierholz says, “but they don’t.”
When asked about the early termination of the program, a Senate Democratic aide who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to talk said it was an example of why Democrats have been pushing for an extension and considering the possibility of automatically tying the benefits to the condition of the economy.
Democrats have made extending unemployment one of their priorities, but Republicans have been skeptical, noting that some Americans are making more on unemployment than they were at their jobs and that businesses trying to reopen are having trouble rehiring.
“The federal government will meet its obligation under the CARES Act. Any phase four economic package must prioritize pro-growth economic measures that incentivize employers and our great American workforce for re-employment and a return to the labor market,” Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement to USA TODAY.
House Democrats in May narrowly passed a $3 trillion coronavirus package that among other things would extend the $600 unemployment assistance until January. But the bill was considered a nonstarter by the GOP-controlled Senate, whose leaders argued more time was needed to examine how the trillions already passed were working and what needs remain as the country started to reopen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “liberal wish list” at the time.
Phylicia Darice, 30, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has yet to receive unemployment benefits since she applied in mid-April after being furloughed.
She says no one from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development informed her that the CARES Act supplement would end July 25, though she has called the department roughly 100 times to ask about the progress of her claim.
“You keep going through it, and then you feel like you’re being lied to,” Darice said.
Darice, who worked in retail customer service, may be able to return to work at the end of July, but with the virus still spreading, the future is uncertain. After weeks without income or unemployment benefits, she is stretched thin financially, she says.
“I realize $600 may not be much to some, but you’re talking about the livelihood for someone eating for … a couple of weeks,” Darice said. “Or making sure rent is paid for August, because nothing is guaranteed.”
Copyright 2020, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY. Contributing: Michael Collins and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; Wendy Rhodes, The Palm Beach (Florida) Post; Cassandra Stephenson, The (Nashville)Tennessean; Mark Williams, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.