Shanai Matteson, an artist and educator in Minneapolis, has spent the past five months making difficult choices. She’s nowhere near finished.
Matteson shares a business—and two children—with her ex-husband. In the middle of March, every contract they had disappeared.
Around the same time, Minneapolis public schools called an early spring break as the pandemic spread, then moved children to online classrooms when school resumed. Matteson’s five-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son aren’t old enough to fend for themselves in a virtual environment, so when school is in session, Matteson and the children’s father take turns juggling fractions and phonemes.
“It’s been tough to figure out how to get any work done while also figuring out school and how to pay bills,” Matteson says. “We’ve been in a tailspin.”
The one economic bright spot, she says, was the extra $600 a week she and her ex-husband both received in federal pandemic unemployment insurance. They’re two of about 31 million Americans who got that money on top of state unemployment benefits from the end of March to the end of July, when the CARES Act provision ended. Discussions over whether to renew the extra weekly payment, and how much to give qualifying workers, stalled in August when the Senate adjourned for summer break without reaching an agreement.
Some states are sending residents $300 checks funded by FEMA to make up for the loss. But those payments aren’t available in every state, and have only been federally approved for a three week period in the states where they are.
In the meantime, unemployed Americans are back to receiving just their state unemployment benefits, which typically pay a few hundred dollars a week or less. Many face questions with no obvious answers. How will we pay the bills? What will happen to our home? Our retirement? Should we take jobs that put older family members at risk? How will our business survive?
For Matteson, that $600 weekly bump allowed her to pay her $1,500 rent and all of her bills while saving a little money for the months ahead.
Now she’s thinking of moving back to her hometown in northern Minnesota, where economic opportunities are few but rent is cheap. She was forced to make a $5,000 car repair in July, and now faces paying off that bill in addition to meeting her regular expenses. Her state unemployment benefits total just $200 a week.
“If that relief money doesn’t come through, I don’t think I can stay,” she says.
“My industry is dead”
More than 10% of Americans were unemployed at the end of July; a figure that’s weighted heavily towards jobs in food service, entertainment, and other industries hit hard by the pandemic.
Eric Kingsley, a performer and educator in Westford, Mass., works in a sector suffering from an unemployment rate that’s twice as high as it normally is.
Kingsley runs a one-man children’s show called “Brickapalooza,” which illustrates math and science concepts through Lego bricks at schools, summer camps, and birthday parties. All those activities ended in March.
A Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan brought Brickapalooza $1,200, but “that won’t go very far to pay for a studio and expenses,” Kingsley says. “That extra $600 was keeping me sane and letting me meet expenses.”
Sarah Salisbury, a Minneapolis resident who lost her work in theater and event management, is in a similar predicament.
“I saw the writing on the wall about two months out and started spending as little as possible,” Salisbury says. “My industry is dead.”
As a single person, Salisbury has no one but herself depending on her income — but she also doesn’t have a spouse or roommate to help with the rent. By cleaning out her small retirement account and a savings fund that was supposed to go towards buying her first home, Salisbury thinks she can pay her bills for another two to three months.
“I’m 35 years old,” she says. “I was just starting to have a little money in the bank. I was looking forward to buying a house someday. Now I’m wondering if I can keep my apartment.”
Before the pandemic hit, David Chaffin worked at a micro-greens farm in Hampton Bays, New York. He got laid off in May, and has been living off of unemployment benefits ever since.
Chaffin still gets a weekly payment from the state of New York, but it’s not enough to pay his living expenses and $1,700 mortgage, he says.
He and his wife are approaching retirement age, and are considering relocating to Germany—where Chaffin’s wife was born—which has lower coronavirus infection rates and more robust social support than the U.S.
For now, the couple has sealed off the front of their house and are renting it out through Airbnb for $220 a night.
“We’ve been booked every day since we opened up in the beginning of July through the end of August,” Chaffin says. But that income stream will likely fade with the summer. As of this writing, the couple has just one booking for the month of September.
Jennifer Minor, a lighting designer who moved from Louisiana to New York this spring, was forced to make “some tough decisions around medications,” when the $600 benefit ended.
“I lost between $5,000 and $6,000 in work immediately when the pandemic hit, and my husband was caught in limbo between jobs,” she says.
Minor’s husband is working again, but he had to take a pay cut from his last job, and now has a new health insurance deductible to meet. As a result, Minor is skipping the prescriptions she takes to slow the progression of her rheumatoid arthritis.
“I get $107 a week from the state,” she says. “That $600 a week made it so we could pay our rent.”
Will we ever bounce back?
Business owners are also suffering from the end of expanded unemployment insurance.
Back in Minneapolis, Mela Amara, co-owner of Magus Books (located just two and a half blocks from Shanai Matteson’s art studio) says the unemployment insurance squeeze has had a profound effect on revenue.
“Since the $600 went away, we’ve had a 25% drop in business,” she says. “That money was helping our customers stay afloat and support small businesses.”
Magus Books has laid off all ten of its employees, and new cleaning procedures and Plexiglas shields have added extra expenses when money is already tight.
There’s no telling how long the bookstore can survive without an extension of the full $600 weekly benefit.
“Right now we are barely surviving,” Amara says.