Millions of Americans who rely on soon-to-expire expanded unemployment benefits face a future that could involve food insecurity, poverty, loan defaults, bankruptcies, evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness.
Ever since she became a single mother at age 19, Kazz Walding has worked tirelessly, jumping from one low-wage job to another, often juggling two at a time to support herself and her daughter.
After about a decade of struggles, the Atlanta-based Walding found her niche as a stagehand for live entertainment, film, and television productions. She joined a union, and for the past five years, has earned enough money to not need a second job.
“I finally have a career,” the 36-year-old said. “I have a job that pays me enough that I can raise my daughter.”
That career and the financial security Walding worked so hard for is now on the verge of disappearing, potentially forever. Like scores of other Americans, including the more than 5 million people who work in arts and entertainment, Walding has been unable to find work during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused the worst economic collapse in nearly a century.
The only thing that has protected her and her family from financial ruin has been the $600-a-week in federal benefits she receives on top of her state payments. As someone who earns her income through contract work, she can receive that supplement because of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program Congress enacted for freelancers and gig workers like her who typically don’t qualify.
It helped tremendously, Walding said. “That puts us in a position where we’re making right at, or just less, than what we were making at our jobs in the entertainment industry … It’s been the saving grace.”
But that saving grace is set to expire at the end of the month. While House Democrats passed a bill in May to extend them through January 2021, the Republican-led Senate sat on that legislation for two months. Now, with July 31 rapidly approaching and the final round of expanded unemployment payments going out this weekend, the White House and the GOP Senate are scrambling to agree on some sort of extension, though they say they’ve ruled out reauthorizing the benefits at the same level.
While Republican politicians squabble over how much aid to provide, more than 20 million Americans who rely on this additional money find themselves stuck in the middle, facing a future that could involve food insecurity, poverty, loan defaults, bankruptcies, evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness.
“Without that [extension], it puts me right back at square one,” Walding said. “I’m going to have to go back to working two to three different jobs that maybe aren’t minimum wage, but only pay $8 to $10 an hour and don’t offer benefits.”
If lawmakers don’t reach some sort of agreement and extend the federal supplement, the most Walden could get in benefits is $365 per week, the maximum amount in Georgia. The consequences of losing the expansion would be devastating for Walding and her family.
“My daughter, who has emotional issues, will not have the medical care that she needs. I will not have medical care that I need,” Walding said. “We won’t be able to live in our own place, we’re going to have to go and move into either my parents’ basement or we’ll have to find another living arrangement.”
‘I’m Super Worried. I Feel Helpless’
Walding’s situation is devastatingly common, especially in the arts and entertainment industry, which has more or less been completely shut down since March. Film and television production, which ordinarily requires hundreds of cast and crew to be on set at the same time, is all but impossible in the age of COVID-19. So too are theatrical productions, live events, and concerts, which involve anywhere between hundreds and tens of thousands of talent, staff, and live audiences crammed into venues.
“It’s not safe enough to reopen any of the entertainment industry at all,” Walding said. “We can’t bring in hundreds of people to come to a concert. We can’t bring in live studio audiences. We don’t know if people have actually kept themselves safe from the virus, so bringing them on for a television production is next to impossible.”
Until then, workers in entertainment—most of whom are middle- and working-class—face a long road before they can return to their previous careers.
“There is no work,” said Donna Cooper, an actor based in Long Island, New York. Cooper, who has spent more than two decades acting, has also relied on unemployment benefits to get by the past few months.
“I get teary-eyed thinking about it,” Cooper said about receiving her benefits. “It was like ‘Oh wow, we’re going to make it.’”
Because of the $600 weekly payment, Cooper and her husband, who is disabled, have been able to pay for him to continue receiving injections to address his neck pain. The benefits have also helped them pay for essentials when there’s virtually no work out there.
“We can keep putting food on the table. We can make the car payments. We can pay our bills. We can pay that incredible credit card bill that just keeps looming around,” Cooper said.
Even in the rare cases where there might be work, many people are understandably weary about returning to a job that may or may not be safe.
Cooper not only helps take care of her husband but her elderly mother as well. She said she is nervous about inadvertently infecting them with the virus. “I’m open to trying to find more work, but I’m very sensitive to leaving and exposing anybody here.”.
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She’s not alone. Whitney Anne Adams has been working as a costume designer for films, television shows, and theatrical productions for over a decade and loves her job. But the 34-year-old New Yorker is immunocompromised and recently experienced a cancer scare that required surgery to remove one of her lymph nodes.
“All we want to do is work, I think about it every day. All I want to do is get back out there, but it’s not safe,” Adams said. “I don’t want to work and risk my life, which I will be doing.”
Adams has also relied on unemployment to get through the spring and summer and is now worried about what will happen if she can longer receive the extra $600 a week. “The only thing keeping me going is those benefits because there’s no jobs and I can’t work,” she said.
She also expressed immense frustration that Republicans in the Senate sat on the House-passed bill for two months and left people like her to worry about their future.
“It’s really done a number on my mental health. I mean I’m super worried, I feel helpless,” Adams said. “I’m very depressed, very anxiety-prone, lots of panic attacks, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life going forward and really the only thing that’s kept me in a somewhat stable position is this extra $600 and to have people just sort of toy around with my life like that—all for political statements instead of helping the people of this country—it really hurts your soul.”
Emily Cawood, a 41-year-old stage technician and live events programmer, is also irritated by the GOP’s decision to wait until the last minute. “They just haven’t been proactive about taking care of any of this situation,” she said. “It’s frustrating to know that they’re just sitting on it and hoping that it goes away, or that it fixes itself, instead of being proactive.”
Republicans justified the delay in June by saying they wanted to wait to see how previous relief bills helped the economy. They also argued that the unemployment benefits were too generous and disincentivized people from returning to work—a talking point that Cawood balks at.
“I really get frustrated with that whole narrative of ‘Well, people won’t go out and find work, they don’t want to work now.’ It’s like, ‘Dude, I would much rather be working than sitting in here, with the what-ifs spinning in my head all day long,’ but I can’t find work.”
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Adams was similarly outraged by the argument, which she said ignored the decades of hard work she and so many others have put in before the pandemic upended their lives.
“I have worked 100-plus hours per week my entire career. I put my heart and soul into everything I do, much like everyone else in this industry, much like everyone else in this country,” she said. “We all work so hard just to scrape by, just to get by, to have food on the table, to have a roof over our head. We’re all working so hard and to see someone just not care at all [and say] that ‘Oh we’re just taking money for free. No, we earned that.”
Adam Bishop, a 28-year-old stagehand in New York, has also received the expanded unemployment benefits and pointed out the purpose of the benefits wasn’t only to provide economic survival, but to help the nation contain the virus.
“In a pandemic, they should be paying us to stay home to actually shelter in place, to quarantine, to actually get this pandemic down, to get those cases down,” Bishop said. “I’m concerned that by not extending these benefits and by making people desperate, they’re only going to make the pandemic worse.”
An ‘Insulting’ Proposal
The economic substance of the Republicans’ argument has also been refuted by experts. “There is no evidence right now at all that businesses cannot hire people when they have jobs available,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, the co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “I think fundamentally the reason why more people aren’t employed has nothing to do with unemployment insurance.
Instead, he said, the nation’s failure to contain COVID-19 is what has hurt the economy and made people feel unsafe returning to work. This has forced people to save their money out of fear of what comes next, devastating consumer spending, leading to less demand and fewer jobs.
People will only return to work when there are “safe job openings and work opportunities to go to,” Dutta-Gupta said.
Republicans this week acknowledged the necessity of some kind of extension, but remain committed to dramatically reducing the benefit. They’ve discussed slashing the benefit from $600 per week to $100, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they would replace the initial benefit with an amount that provided each person with about 70% of their previous wage.
“We want to make sure that the people that are out there that can’t find jobs do get a reasonable wage replacement,” Mnuchin told CNBC. “It will be based on approximately 70% wage replacement.”
That would amount to a federal supplement of between $175 to $200 per week, a 30-50% drop in income for jobless people, according to Ernie Tedeschi, a former economist in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration.
But even those bare-bones proposals have divided Republicans. As of Friday morning, party leaders had yet to agree on any plan to present to Democrats, who, along with several economists, have widely panned the GOP’s effort to reduce benefits, calling it “insulting.”
‘Our Industry Will Collapse’
Entertainment industry workers are also deeply frustrated and were blunt about how they felt about the efforts to end or reduce the benefits.
“It’s one of those things—they don’t have an access point to what it feels like to have to live in this kind of situation and they just have to exercise some modicum of empathy,” Cawood said. “I don’t want a handout but there’s nothing I can do right now. If they can just spend two weeks in somebody else’s shoes, they would change their tune pretty quickly I think.”
“When they fail, they’re affecting all of us,” Walding added. “They’re affecting every single American citizen and they’re going to make us fail too because of their greed and their unwillingness to work together like adults.”
Fed up by the federal government’s inaction, Stephanie Freed and Grant McDonald, two New York City-based entertainment industry professionals, launched ExtendPUA.org a volunteer-led grassroots organization focused on pressuring lawmakers to reauthorize the $600-a-week benefit and extend and expand eligibility for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program until the pandemic is over.
The group is led by entertainment industry workers, but they’re advocating for an extension for all Americans, as well as those who may not have qualified for the federal supplement.
“As entertainment professionals, we want to mobilize our own industry—to use our access and skills to make demands for our own needs in this time, but also for the needs of all of the people who don’t have access to the microphone,” McDonald said.
Freed and McDonald, who also lost their jobs and have relied on unemployment benefits to get by, organized resources to make it easier for volunteers and allies to contact their lawmakers.
Unless benefits are expanded, they say, millions of Americans will suffer and countless entertainment industry workers will be forced to leave the cities and cultures they so richly contribute to, signaling the end of the arts and entertainment industry as we know it.
“It’s a lifeline, and without it, our industry will collapse,” McDonald said. “Individuals will be forced to leave the cities and jobs they love. Since other career paths don’t exist right now and there are over 5 millions of us, we’re not sure where that path leads.”
That collapse could also have devastating ripple effects for the entire American economy. The arts and entertainment sector is a goliath, accounting for more than $875 billion in economic activity each year, or 4.5% of America’s GDP. It also generates additional spending in other industries, including restaurants, transportation, and hospitality. If the industry loses a sizable percentage of its workforce, Freed and McDonald argue, the whole nation will suffer.
“A collapse of arts, entertainment, and live events would devastate the economy, and America’s morale,” McDonald said. “We contribute heavily to the economy … but more importantly, the arts, storytelling, and community are an essential part of the recovery process from a massive global tragedy.”
Whether Freed and McDonald are successful in that effort remains to be seen, but the stakes could not be higher. The future of millions of Americans depends on what Congress does in the coming days. If lawmakers don’t extend the $600-a-week unemployment supplement, or if they pass a much less generous version, millions of Americans could be sent plunging off an economic cliff from which there may be no recovery.
At the very least, their lives will never be the same.
Walding is all but certain she’ll have to move back in with her parents. She feels fortunate to even have that option, since not everyone does. But it also makes her sad and angry that she might lose everything she’s worked so hard for.
“It would completely upend our lives,” she said. “It puts me back at square one after I’ve spent my entire life clawing my way out of where I was.”