The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly ravaged businesses across the United States. Millions have been left unemployed over the past six months. Attempting to mitigate the negative impact of unemployment, Congress passed the CARES Act in March that included an extra $600 in weekly benefits to anyone who successfully filed for unemployment checks.
But the extra unemployment benefit ended in July, and the impact is now being felt across the country, as well as in Sammamish.
Matt Carbonaro, 37, had worked at Boeing for almost 15 years when he was laid off at the end of July. He was one of over 15,000 other employees that Boeing had cut due to the virus-induced drop in air travel and demand for airplanes.
Carbonaro just missed the opportunity to collect the extra $600 per week. His last day of work fell on July 31, right after the benefit ended.
If he had the extra benefits, it would have “been enough to help us out and have a huge impact in the long term. Especially now with COVID,” Carbonaro said.
With the extra $600, he would have been collecting around 80% of his lost wages. Now with just normal state benefits, he only recovers a mere 40% of his income to support his family.
Unemployment benefits are based off previous or potential lost wages, and states have varying benefit amounts. Low-income workers had the most to gain from the extra $600 per week, with many collecting more money from unemployment than they had at their previous jobs. At the same time, these low-income workers are also now being hit the hardest after the benefit ended, facing the steepest drop in their weekly unemployment checks. But everyone who is unemployed saw reduced checks in August.
In Washington, the regular minimum weekly benefit amount is around $200, and the maximum is just over $800. Some states like Arizona and Mississippi max out at under $300.
Many unemployed workers benefited in the short term with the extra cash at their disposal. But in the long term, people making more on unemployment than their actual jobs would potentially have little incentive to return to work if the benefit continued indefinitely.
“It’s a double edge sword,” Carbonaro said. “It does help people when there are no jobs to be found. But long term, the economy can’t sustain it.”
Applying for jobs in the midst of a global pandemic and an unemployment crisis has proven difficult, Carbonaro said.
“You used to be able to work your network, call a friend at a company, they would refer you, and you would get an interview,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. Everyone is calling their friend at a company.”
Deb Austin, 51, got lucky. Austin had worked at Treasury Wine Estates for just under two years, when 95% of the staff, including her, were laid off on July 1. Being in the wine distributor industry for over six years paid off, and one of her contacts did successfully refer Austin to a new job at Young’s Market Company, another wine distributor. She started on August 3.
But the month in between proved to be “really stressful,” Austin said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs in my industry at this point.”
Austin did not even receive any unemployment benefits. With the rise in people losing their jobs, it has proven difficult, with long waiting times, to even file with the state’s Employment Security Department.
“I’ve had issues with getting unemployment, I haven’t been able to get through to anything,” she said.
Jennifer, a Sammamish resident in her forties who declined to give her last name, was able to get through the wait and collect unemployment while out of work.
She was employed at a gastroenterology clinic in Bellevue for the past seven years, but the clinic was forced to temporarily close. From mid-March through the first week of May, she collected state benefits that included the extra $600 per week.
Since her husband was employed during the entirety of the time, Jennifer felt the extra money was just a bonus, and their family did not rely on it financially. She ended up donating the money to a friend who was also unemployed and had a greater need.
“I felt guilty, and I think there were people out there that really needed it,” she said. “I felt that it was the right thing to do at the time.”
In Sammamish, many residents are able to work from home and the city’s high median household income underscores a certain cushion for many families to weather this economic shock. Most families in this city are not living paycheck to paycheck.
“It’s not a good snapshot of Washington and the country and how it’s dealing or struggling,” Jennifer said. “Not everybody is living that way, and that’s where all the guilt comes in.”
Congress has so far been unable to renew the enhanced unemployment benefits. The Trump Administration, by executive order, has extended the benefit at a lower rate of $300 per week. Washington State has signed on for this benefit, but for now, it only covers three weeks, and applies to those who were eligible to receive unemployment between July 26 and August 15.