Many out-of-work Americans counting on receiving an extra $600 a week through the end of July may be surprised to discover that benefit will disappear nearly a week earlier than they expected.
The additional $600 in weekly jobless benefits provided by the federal government is officially set to end July 31. But states will pay it only through the week ending July 25 or July 26, a significant blow to unemployed workers counting on those funds to bolster state benefits that average just $370 a week.
"The (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) $600 can be paid for weeks ending no later than the week ending prior to Friday, July 31, 2020,'' the U.S. Department of Labor said in a statement. "For all states except (New York), that is Saturday July 25th. New York’s end date is Sunday, July 26th."
The confusion lies in the fine print. Unemployment benefits are paid by states on a weekly or biweekly basis with a defined end date on Saturday or Sunday. But the federal legislation known as the CARES Act, which authorized the additional compensation, says the benefit will end “on or before July 31” — a Friday.
That means, given the payment schedules of most states, the last week of the extra $600 payments will end the prior Saturday or Sunday. A Trump administration official said the CARES Act legislation is inaccurate as written. Efforts to reach lawmakers who participated in drafting the legislation were unsuccessful.
The technicality apparently led to confusion, with some states mistakenly listing July 31 as the end date, including New York.
New York state's department of labor said it would switch the end date on its website for the additional $600 benefit from July 31 to the week ending July 26 after USA TODAY inquired about it.
To avoid any confusion, Alabama's Department of Labor said it will alert those who receive benefits that their extra income bump will end after July 25th.
“We will be messaging it at least two weeks in advance,” Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the state's labor department said in an email.
$600 was crucial to many
The extra weekly payment of $600 is part of the CARES Act, a $1.8 trillion package Congress passed to help the nation weather the economic storm spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered businesses, slowed spending and erased a staggering 22 million jobs in just two months.
In 13 weeks, 45.7 million people filed first-time claims for jobless benefits as the unemployment rate soared to 13.3%, close to the highest level since the Great Depression.
The extra $600 payment provided a vital boost, significantly increasing the assistance those who'd lost work received. And even economists expected it to last through the end of July.
"We’ve all being saying it’s July 31st, but it’s not,'' says Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Checks that are $600 lighter will mean that already struggling Americans will have to pull their belts even tighter, economists say, and it may take even longer for the battered economy to regain its footing.
“This is one major thing helping the economy, and taking it away really negatively impacts on the broader economy, not to mention the individuals whose own circumstances have been much affected,” said Zach Schiller, research director for Policy Matters Ohio.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters on Tuesday that it was important to continue the benefit at a time when the country is still dealing with the pandemic, especially as moratoriums lift on when renters can be evicted from their homes.
“It puts money in people’s pockets,” the Ohio Democrat said. “We’re going to see a massive number of people evicted.”
For Melissa Rusk of Bradenton, Florida, the thought of losing the $600 federal subsidy for even one week is almost too much to bear.
"I would say it’s just about life or death in some situations," she said. "It can potentially mean the difference between being able to help my husband pay bills like groceries or the car payment."
Rusk, 36, lost her job at a recreational vehicle rental facility at the end of April. Her husband still works a warehouse job, but his income doesn't cover the expenses for their family of six, which includes four children between the ages of 7 and 18.
Without the federal subsidy, and with the numbers of new infections skyrocketing in Florida, Rusk fears she will be forced to take a customer-facing job that could potentially put her family, including her mother who suffers from heart disease, COPD and diabetes, at risk for contracting COVID-19.
"I would have to literally put my life at risk and just take the chance and hope to God that I don’t get sick," she said.
The earlier than anticipated ending of the program will likely put more pressure on Congress in July when lawmakers plan to negotiate another possible coronavirus emergency package.
"Lawmakers think they have until the end of July to figure this out,'' says Shierholz, "but they don’t."
When asked about the early termination of the program, a Senate Democratic aide who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to talk said it was an example of why Democrats have been pushing for an extension and considering the possibility of automatically tying the benefits to the condition of the economy.
Democrats have made extending unemployment one of their priorities but Republicans have been skeptical, noting that some Americans are making more on unemployment than they were at their jobs and businesses attempting to reopen are having trouble rehiring.
"The federal government will meet its obligation under the CARES Act. Any phase four economic package must prioritize pro-growth economic measures that incentivize employers and our great American workforce for re-employment and a return to the labor market," Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement to USA TODAY.
House Democrats in May narrowly passed a $3 trillion coronavirus package that among other things would extend the $600 boosted unemployment assistance until January.
But the bill was considered a non-starter by the Republican-controlled Senate who argued more time was needed to examine how the trillions already passed were working and what needs remain as the country started to reopen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “liberal wish list” at the time.
Since then, top Democrats have continued to point to the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or the HEROES Act, pressuring the Senate to take up the measure.
“They say they don't want to do unemployment insurance,'' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference last week about the need for more legislation to address the pandemic. "This is the thirteenth week that we've had over a million people applying for unemployment.''
But Republicans have been reluctant to approve an extension to unemployment across the board, with some wanting reforms or other changes as part of any forthcoming package.
“We need to go back to the CARES Act, do some tailoring, really understand who's hurting out there, who really over the last three months made far less money than they did last year,'' Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said on Tuesday.
Phylicia Darice, 30, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has yet to receive any unemployment benefits since she applied in mid-April after being furloughed.
She says no one from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development informed her that the CARES Act supplement would end on July 25, though she's called the department roughly 100 times to ask about the progress of her claim.
"That's kind of frustrating, that you keep going through it, and then you feel like you're being lied to," Darice said.
Darice, who worked in retail customer service, may be able to return to work at the end of July, but with the virus still spreading, the future is uncertain. After weeks without income or unemployment benefits, she is already stretched thin financially, she says. Losing a week of supplemental funds will have a significant impact on her household.
"I realize $600 may not be much to some, but you're talking about the livelihood for someone eating for ... a couple of weeks," Darice said. "Or making sure rent is paid for August, because nothing is guaranteed."
Contributing: Michael Collins and Christal Hayes (USA TODAY); Wendy Rhodes, Palm Beach (Florida) Post; Cassandra Stephenson, The (Nashville)Tennessean; Mark Williams, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.