As Mainers who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic received their last enhanced weekly unemployment checks this week, thousands of us across the state are panicking right now. If Congress doesn’t act swiftly, approximately 182,000 Mainers, including 46,000 children, will be impacted, and many could end up in poverty or even become homeless.
Senate Republicans and some Democrats are opposed to extending the full $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) and would prefer to drastically reduce it down to $200 a week and then transition to a new program that would replace around 70 percent of a worker’s previous pay. Cutting this benefit so deeply will cause severe economic pain as so many have depended on the FPUC to pay rent, make house payments and purchase health insurance after losing their employer-sponsored health care. The Maine Department of Labor has explained that a system to verify everyone’s previous wage information would take several months to implement and is likely unworkable. Simply extending the $600 benefit is the truly sensible and humane thing to do.
In a recent statement, Sen. Susan Collins said she believes that the current benefit is a “disincentive to work” and that “fixing” it would “help restore jobs more quickly.” But as rates of coronavirus infections continue to surge across the country and the rate of unemployment is on the rise again, it’s obvious that this modest $600 benefit isn’t causing unemployment — the COVID-19 pandemic is. I am encouraged that Sen. Angus King has strongly criticized the Republican plan, which would slash benefits for tens of thousands of Maine workers, but I wish he would take a stronger public stand on fully extending the $600 weekly benefit.
Contrary to what some business lobbyists and politicians claim, a new in-depth study by Yale University researchers found no evidence that the more generous FPUC benefits disincentivized work. The reality is that workers cannot simply refuse work and collect unemployment. If they are called back to work, they must return or lose their benefits, with a few specific exceptions in the CARES Act for certain high-risk individuals. The program also has strict work search requirements that are only temporarily suspended for permanently laid off workers until August 9. If finding a job was so easy in this economy, we wouldn’t be hearing from people every day in the Maine AFL-CIO’s unemployment assistance group who are destitute and even homeless because the state’s unemployment system has taken months to process their benefits. They would be working and earning a living, rather than scrambling for food and housing.
As someone who is temporarily dependent on unemployment to support my family, I’m confident that the vast majority of people collecting this benefit would prefer to be working. I’ve worked hard all my life in Maine since I was 16. When the pandemic hit here in March, I was heartbroken to receive the layoff notice from my job as a customer service representative at a local appliance retailer. My family had just moved to Auburn and we had budgeted for a $400 a month increase in our rent. My daughter’s daycare was also shut down for the foreseeable future. Immediately, our lives were thrown into turmoil as we adapted to the post-COVID world.
COVID-19 is not our fault. We could not predict, plan for, or stop it. I am able to look for work, but unable to start without childcare. Even if I am able to find a new daycare, we will not be able to afford it without the FPUC benefit. I am in a catch-22 that is all too common among parents who are out of work due to the pandemic.
There are tens of thousands of Mainers just like us who are only able to get by because of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. No civilized society should let anyone become homeless due to circumstances beyond their control. We need our senators to fight for us, to fight for me and to fight for my daughter so that she doesn’t lose her home. We urge our elected officials to fight to fully extend the current FPUC.
Heather Finley lives in Auburn and is a member of the Maine Unemployment Assistance Group.