Congress: Extend unemployment benefits, or you might lose your job

Hundreds of unemployed Kentucky residents wait in long lines outside the Kentucky Career Center for help with their unemployment claims on June 19, 2020 in Frankfort, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images.

I’m unemployed.

I’ve been a journalist for three decades now, starting in the summer of 1989, when I did a summer internship at the Bismarck Tribune. How could I have known when I left a full-time job last year — after my spiraling-out-of-control arthritis rendered me scarcely able to walk some days — that I would wind up unemployed during the worst possible year?

But there it is.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to get unemployment, plus the $600 weekly federal addition. Which has put me in the category of people who ended up “making” more on unemployment than when I was working full time.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration have threatened to let the $600 weekly bonus check expire Saturday while Democrats want to extend it. I remember when lawmakers were first debating the program, and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, was among those arguing that OMG it might mean some people will make more on unemployment than if they were working full time.

Well, sweet Sen. Sasse Molassey — as my husband used to call him when we lived in Nebraska — here I am. In exactly that position. Newsrooms have shed roughly half their workforce since 2008. What few journalism jobs there were before the pandemic have largely dried up now. Some weeks there are literally no Minnesota jobs listed on journalismjobs.com. So there you have it, Senator. 

He was right, some people ended up “making” more. In fact, two out of three recipients “make” more than when we were working. (Which is an interesting comment about how low wages are in the United States.) 

Here’s how that happens, Senator: I earned about $961 a week before taxes during my last full time journalism job. Now if I don’t get any freelance work, I get about $400 in state unemployment, plus that $600 federal bump. It’s weird, but I have more breathing room in my budget than I’ve had in years, because that $961 was my gross pay. In recent years, after deducting for insurance, taxes and retirement, I was netting around $750 per week. Now I get $1,000 per week if I don’t work. 

So the argument Republicans are making is that once the $600 is gone, I’ll be more motivated to go find work. 

But here’s the reality of the job market, especially for someone who is a prime candidate to be a victim of, ahem, age discrimination: 

For the first time, I’ve considered making that jump to public relations — as many journalists do when they want to make more money — but that field is hurting now, too, as businesses struggle and close. I’ve had no luck there. I’ve even applied for waitressing jobs, since I waitressed through high school and part of college. But prospective employers can’t get past that 30-year gap in my resume where I went off and wrote stories. Also, my arthritis requires me to be on immunosuppressants, putting me at risk if I get the coronavirus — so perhaps serving multitudes meals is not the best career for me anyway. 

I’m considering going back to college to get certified to teach. Some districts still even offer defined benefit pensions — which are pretty much unheard of in journalism nowadays. 

I have started freelancing, even though every dollar I make cuts into my unemployment check. In fact, I sometimes make less when I work. But I still work, because I have not yet given up on my dream of doing journalism until I retire. 

In short, the program has been a godsend. Without it, I have no doubt I would’ve had to sell my house or file for bankruptcy by now. Our meager savings — teaching and journalism are not the most lucrative careers — was eaten up fast and our retirement funds can’t be touched.

Although I should probably just sock away the unemployment bonus, I’ve paid off as many debts as possible — our half of the kids’ student loans loom large — and tried to catch up on house and car repairs that I may not be able to afford down the road, when the regular state weekly unemployment ends. Our car odometers are spinning in the 100- and 200,000 range, but we intend to drive them into the ground. And we have a house built about 100 years ago, so I’ve been getting gutters fixed, repairing broken windows and sprucing up the landscaping — because if I don’t get a full-time job anytime soon, I may have to sell it and downsize.

That way I’ll have a house to sell, if necessary, and a car to drive to work when this is all over. I also figure I’m doing my part to stimulate the economy by putting repair people to work while this pandemic grinds on. Because even when it’s over, there probably won’t be a journalism job to return to. Or a PR job. Or a waitressing job.

I don’t really care what Congress decides to do with the unemployment bonus. I will survive either way. My husband just escaped a round of cuts at his college, and I have a big, loving family spread all over the Midwest. Worst-case scenario: I can always bunk with them until the economy comes back. Some of them — OK most of them — are MAGA lovers with pantries packed with enough food to get through Armageddon. And even though I annoy them — being part of the fake news and all — I know they’d take me in. 

I have a big safety net — not everybody does, and people fall into poverty without one. In fact, The New York Times reports food insecurity has doubled since before this crisis, and child hunger has risen even more. An economist also told the Times ending the subsidy would cause U.S. gross domestic product to shrink 2% by year’s end and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs nationwide.

This unprecedented federal outlay — along with several others — has kept the federal poverty rate in check, despite the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. 

I am surprised the Republicans don’t realize that once that $600 bonus ends, there are a lot of people out there like me who will suddenly have to stop spending money on things like busted windows and broken compressors. People like my daughter, who gets unemployment because she’s been furloughed from her job at Mall of America.* Or my father, who gets unemployment because they shut down the buses for disabled people he drives in North Dakota. Or my sister, whose church laid her off. The list goes on and on. 

Not one of us would rather sit home than work — although with this pandemic it’s better if we do. My daughter said she’d gladly go back to work if her store rehires. My 79-year-old father is back driving buses part time. My son-in-law got off unemployment when his game store reopened. My sister is up for a job at a new church.

We are all far from destitute, but will have to tighten our budgets considerably, along with the nearly half the U.S. population without a job. That’s going to have a major impact on the economy in August, September and October, folks. And guess what’s happening in November? 

Given that, and given Trump’s anemic poll numbers and the possibility he could take a few fellers with him, I’m frankly surprised Republicans are opposing the continued federal boost. It’s expensive, and I’d rather get my money from an employer. But if they thought the economy was suffering now, wait till tens of millions and I suddenly have about $2,400 fewer dollars per month to spend. I think it’s gonna hurt them more than me.

*Due to an editing error, this column originally mischaracterized the current situation at Mall of America. The Mall is open. We regret the error.