Diversity & Inclusion
COVID-19 / Federal government / Jobs

The extra $600 a week mattered to the unemployed people who received it. What’s next?

Here's what unemployment benefits have meant for three people who lost work early in the pandemic, from paying for emergency dental bills to helping recipients better prepare for the future.

Empty city streets. (Photo by Marcio Henrique from Pexels; image has been cropped)

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As a source of relief for those who lost jobs and income during the pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act in March and activated an additional $600 per week in benefits for people who qualified for unemployment.

That $600 bonus ended late last week and means significant changes to come for the more than 25 million people who received it.

Marco Cicero worked at a nonpartisan government data company before being laid off at the end of March. As a resident of Moorestown, New Jersey who worked in Pennsylvania, he initially had issues hearing back from state agencies after applying for unemployment benefits.

Cicero finally received unemployment benefits months after applying and was surprised to discover that he made more money as an unemployed person than when he was working, he said. Not having the extra $600 a week will change the way he has been planning for the future.

“Now we sort of have to reestablish where to go,” Cicero told Technical.ly. “We have to figure out where to cut off and be more judicious. Since I have been able to save up some money, I’ll be OK. I was hoping I could go back to work and use the money for other things.”

Benjamin Greeley has been a student at the Community College of Philadelphia since fall 2019 and works on building startups outside of class. When classes shifted to virtual learning because of COVID-19, Greeley saw the additional free time as an opportunity to spend more time on those ventures.

Greeley said he has technically never been employed at the startups he was working on, but he applied for unemployment benefits and started receiving $200 a week — money that allowed him to buy a domain and hire freelancers on Fiver.

Since the pandemic started, Greeley has gone to stay with his parents in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

“I’ve been working [virtually] with people on building stuff and doing networking things,” he said. He did not get the additional $600 a week and said that it would have allowed him to hire more freelance workers.

Jackson Alexander is a Philadelphia native now living and working in New York City as a freelance audio professional. For Alexander, receiving the extra $600 a week supplemented an otherwise limited amount of unemployment benefits.

“Before COVID, I was working in theater doing sound work for an off-Broadway show,” Alexander told Technical.ly. “I missed the last show due to medical issues and we canceled the next two shows. The next day we found out all theaters were closing.”

After a process that lasted several weeks, Alexander successfully applied for unemployment benefits only to make a stark realization: They were only receiving about $130 a week in benefits after taxes. The additional $600 was closer to $500 once taxes were taken out, so their overall unemployment benefits consisted almost entirely of the extra $600 a week.

In addition to dealing with job loss, Alexander had to spend money to move twice during the pandemic and on emergency dental work to get two root canals done. The cost for each dental appointment was equivalent to the amount of unemployment they received each week.

Alexander said that while working in the arts can be a unique experience financially, it has never been this difficult.

“It’s part of being in the arts,” they said. “Now I’m barely surviving getting what I’m getting — especially with the arts and anything live not being possible until next year. In New York alone so much of the economy thrives off of concerts and live events.”

The latest proposal from Senate Republicans would reduce the unemployment benefits bonus from $600 to $200 per week for the next two months. In contrast, House Democrats’ Heroes Act passed by House Democrats would have extended the $600 weekly benefit into January.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Coronavirus / Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative

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