The Don Bosco Senior Center hosts a weekly Harvesters food pick up Nov. 13 in their parking lot. Cars were lined up around the center and down an adjacent road. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Dec. 28, 2020 update: President Trump signed the $2.3 billion COVID-19 relief package and government spending bill on Sunday, Dec. 27. Unemployment payments may still be delayed.

Earl Lee, 58, moved to Branson, Missouri, at the end of 2019 to start a new gig. As a singer, he planned to perform six shows a week at a local venue starting in spring 2020. 

But that didn’t happen. 

The pandemic started, and Lee played only seven shows between April and July. Since then, he’s played zero shows. As his work ground to a halt, with no income flowing in, Lee began receiving unemployment benefits. 

Earl Lee performs at a charity event in 2014 in St. Louis. Lee moved to Branson last year to start a new gig, but it was put on hold because of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Earl Lee

“It’s not like I could receive regular unemployment because I was a gig worker,” Lee said. “So it really helped with paying the bills and buying food.” 

Like millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the last nine months, Lee has relied on pandemic unemployment programs. But those unemployment programs are now expiring, meaning people like Lee, who is still out of work, will no longer receive payments as COVID-19 cases are at an all time high — and still rising. 

Congress passed another federal coronavirus relief package Dec. 22. Among its provisions is extended pandemic unemployment assistance at an extra $300 a week for up to 11 weeks and a one-time stimulus check of $600. President Donald Trump has to sign the bill into law, though he criticized the bill Tuesday night and demanded that the stimulus checks be increased to $2,000 per person, or $4,000 per couple. 

“Somehow doing this smaller one, not only is not sufficient, but it gives a message that somehow things are not as dire as they were, which is not true.”

Mathew Forstater, economics professor, university of missouri-kansas city

With the state of the bill now in flux, and with over 393,000 COVID-19 cases in Missouri since the start of the pandemic, workers like Lee are struggling. 

“I’m trying to find a job where I can work from home,” Lee said. “… What I would do is, I don’t know, depend on food pantries and things like that, try to get some sort of assistance, along with millions of other people.”

As the pandemic has caused mass layoffs over the past nine months, over 131,000 Missourians and 86,000 Kansans have become unemployed as of November. Mathew Forstater, professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said without a significant stimulus package, the economy will suffer.

“The economy being crushed means more unemployment, more drops in spending, more mass layoffs and business closings and bankruptcies,” he said. “It just is like a domino effect throughout the economy.”

Crystal Brigman Mahaney, communications director at Missouri Jobs With Justice, a workers rights advocacy organization, said the expiration of unemployment benefits could force people to return to work, putting themselves at risk for COVID-19.

“We need policies for working Missourians so they have what they need to stay healthy,” she said. “So that they’re not going without food and health care and shelter, or so that they’re not forced to go back to work prematurely.” 

The ‘stress and uncertainty’

Before the pandemic, gig workers like Jamey Lew Franklin Camerer of St. Louis would not have qualified for regular state unemployment. But the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Act changed that, authorizing the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to make contractors and gig workers eligible for unemployment. 

Latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that over 14 million people nationwide filed continuing claims under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs — 59,340 in Kansas and 43,416 in Missouri. 

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program helped Camerer, who drove for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. At 68, Camerer didn’t want to risk possibly contracting the virus. She stopped driving and applied for unemployment in March. 

Receiving unemployment, including the additional $600 supplement under the CARES Act, was a blessing — it kept her going as the pandemic raged on. It allowed her to pay her bills, insurance and medicine. It kept her sane, she said, allowing her to live “a halfway normal life.” 

Lawmakers plan to extend the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance into March 2021. Still, without immediate relief, Camerer’s now in free fall. 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just got off the phone, trying to get food stamps, trying to get a medical card, trying to get any kind of help I can get,” she said. 

Americans also received a one-time $1,200 check as part of the CARES Act. Camerer said when she received her stimulus check, she put it away for safekeeping. 

“I was able to pad my savings for the future,” she said. “All the little extra things like that, I put away to help me get through. I’m afraid to touch them. Because when they’re gone, I got nothing.”

Cars line up down the street for the Harvesters food delivery Nov. 13 in the Don Bosco Senior Center’s parking lot. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

The extra $600 in unemployment insurance for gig workers lasted from April to the beginning of August and were not renewed afterward. The federal government then authorized an additional $300-$400 for unemployment benefits as part of the Lost Wages Assistance Program under the Federal Emergency Management Agency; those payments last for up to six weeks.

For Shanita Williams, 28, of Kansas City, Missouri, receiving the extra $600 was enough to pay rent and utilities. It replaced the income she would’ve made at her job before the pandemic — enough to keep her head above water after leaving her tech support position to stay home with her two kids as school moved online. 

After the extra $600 expired at the end of July, Williams said she was only receiving $100 a week — not enough to pay bills or keep her car. 

“You have bills that surpass that amount,” she said. “It is extremely difficult to try to stretch $400 across all utilities, cost of living, and rent and shelter and all of that.”

The financial impacts of the pandemic — losing the supplemental $600, not receiving enough on unemployment, staying home with her kids as virtual school continues — has caused immense stress for Williams. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, she said.  

“There’s a level of stress and uncertainty, to know what your next move is, where your next meal is going to come from,” Williams said. “It’s difficult. If I could go to work, I would love to, but I can’t because all kids are out of school. There’s nothing. You literally can’t do anything. Your hands are tied.”

What’s next?

Though lawmakers plan to extend the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Williams still fears she will lose her home and have to move back to her home state of Indiana. 

“As a last resort, I would have to pack all my things and, unfortunately, return home because I would have no other option. I don’t have anything else to fall back on,” Williams said. “Even if I got a job, I still wouldn’t be able to get paid that quick to come up with that amount that is sufficient enough for me to not be evicted.”

The eviction moratorium that began in August under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires Dec. 31, too, though the current COVID-19 relief bill would extend the moratorium and includes $25 million in rental assistance. 

Williams said she had her fingers crossed that Congress would act to help the millions across the country suffering from the pandemic’s economic impacts. 

Trump’s demands to amend the current relief package now throws the state of the bill into uncertainty. In response, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said the House will proceed Thursday on a bill to replace the $600 stimulus checks with $2,000 one-time payments. 

A one-time $600 check, Lee said, wouldn’t help people in his situation. 

“That would help for a week,” he said. “But then what about the next week?”

Meal delivery for the Angel Tree program Dec. 18 at Redemptorist Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The pandemic’s economic impacts have meant more people are asking for assistance with rent and utility payments. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Forstater said the final stimulus package should be as large or include more protections than the CARES Act. But the finalized deal is worth $900 billion, less than the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in the spring. 

“Somehow doing this smaller one, not only is not sufficient, but it gives a message that somehow things are not as dire as they were, which is not true,” Forstater said. 

Meanwhile, trying to find another job in lieu of the expiring benefits is easier said than done. Williams has to stay home all day to care for her kids; even working from home would be difficult. Camerer’s age puts her at high risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. 

Lee spends his days job searching, but there are not many jobs available right now in Branson. He said Congress needs to act more aggressively and relieve the pressure that he and millions of Americans are under. 

“People are out here actually hurting,” he said. “We’re not just numbers and statistics. We are people.”

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.