Ohio workers say ending federal unemployment payments could ruin them if the pandemic persists


By Sabrina Eaton - cleveland.com



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Read more about the pandemic at LimaOhio.com/tag/coronavirus.

CLEVELAND — For Marlo Silver of Hudson and her husband, Mark Angelo Peachock, the party was over as soon as the coronavirus pandemic began.

Instead of making balloon animals and painting faces at kids’ birthday parties or performing a comic variety show at corporate banquets and trade shows, the couple has put their group entertainment businesses on hold until the pandemic abates and large gatherings can resume.

Rather than juggling knives and flaming torches as they usually do, they’re juggling bills in an effort to avoid raiding their retirement savings while they collect unemployment benefits. Silver says the extra $600 per week the pair got from the federal government was helping them make ends meet before last week, when that program’s CARES Act funding expired.

She emailed both Ohio’s U.S. Senators to urge continuing the federal unemployment payment until the epidemic ends. Summer is when her company earns most of its money, and she’s not sure how they’ll survive on meager state unemployment benefits until parties can resume.

“Any money we get has to last us until next summer, at the earliest,” says Sliver, whose act has been featured on television shows including “America’s Got Talent.” “I don’t have the ability to return to work while gatherings of 10 people or less are mandated in Ohio. As Governor DeWine says, people have to be comfortable. People are not comfortable enough to have parties.”

According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, more than 1.5 million initial jobless claims were filed in Ohio since the pandemic began, which exceeds the combined total in the previous four years. In addition to distributing more than $5.8 billion in regular unemployment payments to more than 771,000 Ohioans during the coronavirus recession, ODJFS says it has issued more than $4.9 million in federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments, in $600 per week increments, to more than 503,000 Ohio claimants.

Congress made that $600 weekly supplement to state unemployment benefits temporary because it hoped the pandemic would abate before the benefits ended on July 31. In May, the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a coronavirus relief bill that would continue the $600 payments through January. But the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is weighing other options, because many of its members fear continuing the payments will discourage people from returning to work, particularly those who made more money collecting unemployment than they did on the job.

No money for the bills

Unemployed Ohio workers who have received the $600 benefit say it helped them weather a financially difficult time and should not be discontinued. Youngstown bartender Renee George says the $600 supplement on top of her state unemployment benefits gave her roughly what she made each week before the restaurant where she worked shut down. Now that it has reopened on a limited basis, she’s returned to work part-time and is collecting partial unemployment. Her fiance, who works in natural gas construction, has not been called back to work.

Without the $600 federal payments, she says the pair will have to pay both their car payments, their house payment, their health insurance, homeowners insurance, utility and grocery bills on a combined income of $589 a week - expenses they committed to when they made far more money. They will be forced to decide which bills to pay and which to put off. Utility disconnects are beginning, eviction courts have reopened, and two of her friends were evicted last week, George observes.

“It’s not our fault we don’t have our jobs, it’s the virus’ fault,” says George. “I can’t get another restaurant job because all the restaurants are in the same position.”

Akron’s Wintre Ward, who lost her job as a medical assistant when the pandemic shuttered medical offices, says she didn’t make enough money last year to collect regular unemployment benefits and would most likely have “been out on the street with nothing to eat” without the $600 a week she got in pandemic unemployment assistance money.

Ward, who starts a new job at an obstetrics and gynecology office on Aug. 17, says the money she got while on unemployment was roughly what she earned on the job. She says state unemployment benefits don’t pay enough to support a family without the extra $600 a week, and she believes the extra payments should continue until next year.

“For those who are still unemployed, I really feel for them,” says Ward.

Economy could suffer, too

Evan O’Reilly of Cleveland says that because of the $600 federal payment, he made more from unemployment insurance than he did waiting tables at two different restaurants He says the extra money let him pay off debts, repair his car, set up long delayed doctor’s appointments, focus on long-term career planning and volunteer with a group lobbying for improved inmate conditions at Cuyahoga County jails. He says he will begin work as a Census enumerator in the next few weeks and won’t need to collect unemployment, but argues it isn’t bad to give some people more money on unemployment than they made working. He predicts consumer spending will plummet if the extra payments are removed and the economy will go under “until we have a handle on the virus.”

Meanwhile, many Ohioans who lost their jobs during the pandemic fear that until the virus abates, they won’t be able to return to work as Ward and O’Reilly are doing, and won’t be able to pay their bills without the federal payments. Some of them, like Euclid’s Gregg Putzbach, have medical conditions that would make contracting the coronavirus particularly dangerous. Putzbach, who is diabetic, worked full-time as a school janitor and did part-time event security at Rocket Mortgage Field House before the pandemic ended those gigs. Because he is at high risk for fatal complications from the disease, his doctor has told him to shelter at home until it’s safe. He says he’s been looking for jobs that wouldn’t put him in harm’s way, but hasn’t been able to find any.

While his fiance and her son have been able to continue their grocery store jobs at Heinen’s while practicing safety protocols to avoid the disease, Putzbach thinks infection risks make it unsafe for him to work in either of his old jobs, even if schools reopen or Cavaliers games resume. The weekly federal payments on top of state unemployment benefits gave Putzbach roughly the same income he earned before he was laid off. Without the federal payments, he fears his family won’t have enough money to pay rent, grocery, utility, car insurance and auto loan bills. He says it would be “cruel” to take the money away when so many people have lost jobs because of the pandemic.

“I am infuriated that so many people are struggling through no fault of their own,” says Putzbach. “I am pleading with our political leaders to help out their own people. I want them to make sure we all survive and the economy doesn’t tank and the world shut down. I want to be taken care of by our leaders and I think they should be willing to do that.”

Others who have collected the $600 federal unemployment supplement say they’re hesitant to return to work because they fear infecting frail relatives with the lethal virus. Self-employed interior house painter Cindy Lang of Parma bought the house next door to her elderly parents so they could stay in their own home while she took care of them. She says she did not qualify for state unemployment benefits when the coronavirus dried up her business, so the $600 a week from the federal government was her sole income.

It took weeks for her to collect that money because of difficulties with the ODJFS unemployment application system that were only resolved when she contacted a state legislator. After the money arrived, she was able to pay some of her accumulated bills, such as taxes and her deferred mortgage. She says those $600 weekly payments helped her keep her head above water and she’ll go back to owing large amounts of money if they stop.

Lang says she’s been trying to resume her painting business, but many potential customers balk at her request to wear masks in her presence. She says she made that appeal because she doesn’t want to contract the coronavirus and infect her parents, who both use inhalers for their medical conditions.

“I have been laughed at by a couple of clients that I thought were open minded who said ‘You’re worried about this invisible virus from China?’” says Lang, who hopes she’ll be able to find enough clients who are “willing to take the safe approach” that she can recover enough of her income to get by. “People say that is your choice. I say it is the choice of staying alive when you are choosing between a life and possible death scenario. Why be forced into that when folks won’t wear masks?”

If Congress discontinues the $600 payments, she fears “we will see Depression-era numbers of people losing their housing and needing food assistance,” and suggests that the government direct any extra money intended for corporations to food banks that “are begging people for donations and money.”

“We are feeling kind of like we are in a vacuum screaming at the top of our lungs, digging our fingernails into a cliff and the rock is crumbling,” says Lang. “The damage is starting. I am not looking for a handout. I am looking for a little help up. These big companies and politicians seem to get their fair share. I wish they would lock all the politicians in one room until something is done. It is laughable.”

What the politicians say

Ohio’s U.S. Senators have different views on continuing the payments.

In a Senate floor speech, Ohio Republican Rob Portman said companies with Ohio factories like Ford and Honda are having trouble filling jobs because around 68 percent of people on unemployment insurance are collecting more money than they got while working. He says the federal government should continue to provide a federal unemployment supplement, but in a lower amount because “it can’t be paying people more not to work than to work.

“We should not be playing politics with people’s livelihoods and making this a political football,” continued Portman, who accused Democrats of doing just that by refusing to extend the $600 for an extra week while negotiations are underway.

In his own floor speech, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said relief proposals advanced by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are inadequate, as they don’t extend the expired unemployment insurance money or keep “people in their homes and help them pay the bills.” He said it was “unbelievable” for U.S. Senators, many of whom are millionaires, to complain $600 a week is too much to give unemployed workers.

“We know with hundreds of thousands of Ohioans out of a job, if they don’t get the $600 a week, it will mean more of them go into poverty, more of them have trouble feeding their families, more of them will go to homeless shelters,” said Brown. “It will only get worse if we don’t step in.”

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By Sabrina Eaton

cleveland.com

ONLY ON LIMAOHIO.COM

Read more about the pandemic at LimaOhio.com/tag/coronavirus.

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