ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A record has been shattered. More than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. That is five times worse than the last time the record was broken, which shows just how suddenly a staggering number of people are losing their jobs or income during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those people are asking, what now? And here to help answer that question is NPR economics correspondent Chris Arnold.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So this $2 trillion rescue package is expected to be passed by the House tomorrow. If that happens, who can qualify for unemployment benefits?
ARNOLD: Well, the Department of Labor is telling us that if you lose your job, obviously, you qualify. But also, if you've been quarantined and can't work, you qualify. If you can't work because you're taking care of a family member, you can collect benefits. And this is a very big deal - that self-employed contract workers, gig workers, they now too can qualify for benefits under this bill. That's also - as part of that is this extra $600 we've been hearing about for people, they'll get that too.
SHAPIRO: And so that's more than the 3.3 million people who have filed for unemployment. That's even including people who can't file for unemployment.
ARNOLD: Correct, so it'll be way beyond that. And, you know, gig and contract workers have not been able to get unemployment, you know, ever because they're not considered real employees or full employees. So this is just a huge deal for millions of people, like you're saying, who can now get help if they lose their income.
SHAPIRO: So how is the system handling these millions of people all applying for unemployment at the same time? It's unprecedented numbers. And we've heard of systems crashing, people not being able to get through on the phone. What's going on?
ARNOLD: You could look at this as a glass half-full, half-empty situation. So, right, system is overwhelmed, kind of understandably. And that's frustrating. I talked today to Victoria Lee Archer-Medina (ph). She lives in New York. And she and her husband are both freelancers. She works in photography. He does events. And they're making no income at all right now. They're telling their three kids - they're like, don't drink full glasses of milk. You know, they're, like, rationing food because they're scared. And she was told to go ahead and apply for unemployment as a freelancer now.
VICTORIA LEE ARCHER-MEDINA: That sounds good. I did the application online yesterday. But then with that, you have to call in to complete the application. But when you call in, either the line is busy, or when you get through, they say, due to high call volume, nobody is here to accept your call. But you have to call within the week to activate your case, so I don't know if my application is even going to go through. You know, so that makes me nervous.
ARNOLD: So, you know, she's obviously feeling like, all right, I'll believe it when I see a check in my hand. But look. We should say that this system was not designed for this massive and sudden surge. And it's kind of astounding. I mean, you know, the good news, if you want to call it that here, is that 3 million people - more than that - did manage to file for benefits just last week. States say they're staffing up. So, you know, the news is - the advice is just keep trying.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. So if this drags on, even with unemployment benefits, people may not be able to pay some of their big expenses like their mortgage or their car payment. What can people do there?
ARNOLD: Right. And just quickly, I mean, you know, banks and financial firms appear to be moving well here, that, you know, many people can qualify now to skip payments on your mortgage and other kinds of loans. Some of this the government's ordering. Some banks are just doing it because it makes sense. We spoke to Holly O'Neill with Bank of America.
HOLLY O'NEILL: We have assistance that includes refunds on fees, deferred payments and, at the same time, no negative credit bureau reporting. And this is across our products - deposit accounts, credit cards, mortgages, auto loans and small business loans.
ARNOLD: So that's a lot of different kinds of loans. But this is really important - you can't just stop paying your bills. That's going to mess up your credit score. You need to reach out. So let's say you're a homeowner. You've got to call up the company that you write your check to every month and say, hey, help. I've lost my job. I need to skip some payments and get approved for a plan with any one of these lenders. And for renters, we should say, too, try calling your landlord, and they might be able to work with you.
SHAPIRO: Now, Chris, you cover personal finance for NPR. And this may sound obvious, but I suppose it's also important advice that if your income has shrunk or you're not making any money, it's also good to look for ways to cut spending, right?
ARNOLD: Right. I mean, look. The thing is you want to get to the other side of this national crisis, national shutdown as financially intact as possible. And I talked to Angelica Rico in Southern California. She's 25, and she lost her job as a digital marketing specialist.
ANGELICA RICO: I kind of just went through everything that I - normally gets charged on my card and canceled it. So Spotify, you know, canceling Amazon orders, deferring my student loan. And for food, basically a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and beans. I have an InstaPot, so I'm just - I can live on rice and beans for a while.
ARNOLD: So, I mean, she's even canceling Spotify, which - her music subscription. I'm not sure if I'd be able to do that myself. But look. The idea is this. Trim all you can to get to the other side of this thing.
SHAPIRO: There is a free Spotify plan.
Thank you, NPR's Chris Arnold.
ARNOLD: Absolutely; go with the free plan.
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