Millions of Americans just lost half their unemployment pay : The Indicator from Planet Money Millions of jobless Americans are desperate to know whether their unemployment benefits will be extended, and by how much. But Congress just went on vacation.
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When $600 Goes Away

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When $600 Goes Away

When $600 Goes Away

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Cardiff and Stacey here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

There has been a lot of sound and fury this week about unemployment benefits. The question at the center of everything has to do with the extra $600 a week that Congress had added to unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act back in March.

VANEK SMITH: Those extra benefits expired at the end of July, and that means most of the 30 million Americans on unemployment saw their weekly income drop in half. Economists warn that this could be a huge crisis, with people losing their homes and not having enough food to eat.

GARCIA: Congress had been expected to extend those benefits in some way, but Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked. And most legislators have left for their August break.

VANEK SMITH: Over the weekend, the White House stepped in. President Trump announced the federal government and states would team up to get people an extra $400 a week.

GARCIA: But many states have protested, saying they don't have the money to hold up their part of the president's plan.

VANEK SMITH: So now the latest is that people will see an extra $300 every week on their unemployment check, all coming from the federal government. But there's still a lot of confusion over how long people will have to wait to get that extra cash.

GARCIA: One of those people is Sandy Villatoro. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz., and she worked as a housekeeper at the Sheraton. Sandy has two kids, including a baby. Her husband works in construction. His work has gone away as well. After the break, Sandy talks to us about what this means for her and for her family.

VANEK SMITH: Sandy, thank you for joining us.

SANDY VILLATORO: Thank you for having me

VANEK SMITH: So, Sandy, you were laid off back in March from your job as a housekeeper at the Sheraton. At the same time, your husband's construction work has largely dried up. So what has this period been like for you?

VILLATORO: It was - it's just this scary moment because my husband's check wasn't enough for all the bills that we had. And I had a lot of bills from when I had my daughter still coming in from the hospital. So it was just - it was all just coming so fast that I couldn't keep up with it.

VANEK SMITH: Did your unemployment benefits get you back to what you had been earning before you lost your job?

VILLATORO: Yes. We were perfectly fine with my husband's check and my check. It wasn't like, oh, my God. Yes, we're going to have so much money. No, it was enough for us to, like, keep going with the bills that we already had pre-COVID.

VANEK SMITH: And what are, like, you and your husband's biggest expenses?

VILLATORO: We're renting a house, and that's $1,000 a month. My car - I'm still paying off my car, which is almost $400 a month. I had to get Internet service for my son since he started going back to school for his remote learning. So it's not like it's, like, wants that we want. It's needs.

VANEK SMITH: When did you first find out that the $600 would be going away potentially?

VILLATORO: I get most of my news from Facebook. I shouldn't say that, but I get most of my news from Facebook.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) We all get most of our news from Facebook.

VILLATORO: (Laughter) So I pretty much - everybody was saying like, oh, did you know the benefits were going to end in July, and this and that. So I was kind of scared. I was like, oh, my God. I hope July doesn't end so fast, you know? I was just hoping that July would stretch on forever, but it had to come to an end at one point.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Have you gotten one of the unemployment checks that does not include the $600 yet?

VILLATORO: Yeah. Actually this week we got the one with no - without the 600.

VANEK SMITH: What was that like?

VILLATORO: Well, with taxes and everything, it came out with - it came to 214.

VANEK SMITH: Two hundred and fourteen dollars...

VILLATORO: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...From, like, 800 - more than 800.

VILLATORO: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot less.

VILLATORO: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: And what does that mean for your family?

VILLATORO: We have to choose between, you know, paying the rent on time or, you know, paying for our groceries. The baby, she's growing out of clothes so fast that I can't keep up with that, you know, the bills to be paid on time and then still having to buy clothes for the baby, buy diapers, buy wipes, you know, everything that she needs to be OK.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, because yeah, you've just seen your income drop by, like, more than 70%.

VILLATORO: Yeah, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: And so you mentioned, like, this might mean choosing between groceries and rent. Does that mean that, like, maybe you won't pay rent this month?

VILLATORO: Probably not. I'm not sure. My husband's - like I said, my husband's work has been slowing down a lot. So - and usually this is a time where, like, I would back him up. So now that I don't have that money to be bringing in, where am I going to get that money from?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I mean, one thing that lawmakers in Washington have said as they're talking this through is that they're worried that adding the $600 a week onto unemployment is stopping people from going back to work. Do you think that's true?

VILLATORO: No. That is so not true. I actually want to go back to work. I've been working since I was 17, and I've never asked for unemployment. I've always just - you know, like, while I was working, I would save enough to be OK for, like, two or three months while I looked for another job. But it's - all that stuff that everybody's saying, like, we're lazy, we don't want to go back to work because of the $600, it's not true. Most of us want to return back to our jobs. But my job, since its hospitality and its travel and everything, nobody wants to travel anymore. So how am I supposed to return back to work where it's not open? I mean, I actually applied to a couple other places, but they're not calling. Everybody's saying go get a job. Like, where am I going to go get a job from? No one's hiring.

VANEK SMITH: As you're looking ahead to the next month or two without that additional money, like, what is the thing that worries you the most?

VILLATORO: Just losing my mind and losing my house, losing everything that I worked so hard for. I mean, it's - I just - just the things that I just don't want to, you know, especially since, you know, I worked every day for, you know, five years at the current job that I'm at. You know, and it's so hard just not to see myself working anymore, you know? And I just want to get back to normal is pretty much what I'm trying to say.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. You were working seven days a week?

VILLATORO: Yeah. On our peak season, we would work seven days a week.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

VILLATORO: And sometimes I would even work more than eight hours a day. We just need a little bit of help for now, and, you know, we'll work our butts off, you know, as soon as we get back to work because that's all we've ever known, is we work, work, work, you know, just to get ahead, just to, you know, be OK with our families, be - have food on the table, have a roof over our heads. We're not lazy people. We're hardworking people that just need a little bit of help for now.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Is homelessness, like, a real worry? That's a lot.

VILLATORO: Honestly, it is. It is. And I've stayed up nights just hoping that some miracle will come, that I don't have to resort to that or, you know, having to ask someone to let me stay with them for, like, a little while I get back on my feet. I've never been the person to ask for a handout. Like I said, I've always been the person that - working, working, working and always having everything that I need, that my kids need. And I feel so vulnerable. Like, I don't - I hate asking for help. I hate asking for hands-out (ph). But, you know, it's something I need at the current moment. And my kids need it, you know? And...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

VILLATORO: ...It's so hard just to even say I need it, you know? It's not like me to ask for a handout, is pretty much what I'm trying to say.

VANEK SMITH: Sandy, thank you for sharing your story.

VILLATORO: Thank you for having me.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Elena Burnett, Courtney Dorning and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Special thanks to the team at All Things Considered. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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