Joe Bardi’s “unemployment saga,” as he calls it, began in March, when he was laid off from his marketing job at a St. Petersburg technology company.
It took weeks of frustrating phone calls and hours on Florida’s unemployment website before he was approved for state benefits worth $275 a week, and, more importantly, $600 a week from the federal government.
“The state unemployment benefits suck. They’re terrible,” said Bardi, a father of two whose wife is a freelance worker and did not apply for unemployment. “The $600 from the feds made it worth it.”
But those $600 payments, part of the government’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, are scheduled to run out this week. Unless Congress approves a new package, jobless Floridians will lose a sizeable chunk of aid they now rely on.
“It meant that I did not have to sweat my mortgage payment, I didn’t have to drain my savings, I didn’t have to cash in my 401K,” said Bardi, 44. “I definitely have friends who say the $600 is the line between above water and below water.”
Since April, those $600 payments — officially Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation checks — have sent more than $8 billion to 1.77 million Floridians, including 370,000 in the Tampa Bay area. That’s nearly three-quarters of all the money pumped through Florida’s unemployment system during the pandemic.
Extending the payments would have “the biggest impact on the economy” of any proposal in Congress, said Columbia, S.C., financial planner Matt Frankel.
“It’s really helped keep the economy going,” said Frankel, a contributor to the Ascent, a financial site run by the Motley Fool. “I’m scared to see what’s going to happen if unemployment benefits are allowed to expire entirely. The financial system depends on people being able to pay their bills.”
A recent Ascent survey found that nearly two-thirds of American workers who’ve lost income due to the pandemic felt that without their $600 checks, they wouldn’t last two months.
“When you put $600 in someone else’s wallet, the point is that it doesn’t stay there,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “It goes to pay for food. It goes to pay for medicine. You’re going to see, potentially, a huge stall in the process of money being spent in this state, because no one’s going to have money to spend.”
For someone working 40 hours per week, $600 is nearly double Florida’s minimum wage (and that’s not even counting state unemployment benefits). Critics say it disincentives workers from seeking jobs.
A June report from the Congressional Budget Office projected that extending the payments would boost the economy, but also raise the unemployment rate, since people would make more from the government than by going back to work.
Still, just how far $600 goes depends on who receives it.
According to MIT’s living wage calculator, $600 per week is enough to meet a single adult’s minimum estimated budget for living in the Tampa Bay area, including food, shelter and transportation. It is not enough to support a household with a second adult or children.
Nearly a third of Floridians have missed a recent rent or mortgage payment, or lack confidence they can pay their next one, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Eleven percent said they didn’t have enough food on the table.
Laura Clark of Brandon was furloughed from her training job with a restaurant company, and approved for state and federal benefits in May. She has spent countless hours on the phone with unemployment officials, trying to work through glitches. It hasn’t been easy.
“I thought the whole purpose of the federal money is to help people like me, who got furloughed,” said Clark, 59. “I thought that was to help everybody, no matter how little money they’re paying you.”
She has made do with the payments, but is counting on backdated federal checks to minimize the impact on her budget. She’s waiting on at least five $600 checks.
“I am fortunate, because I’m a saver,” she said. “But every time I have to take money out of my savings account and put it over to my checking account to pay for my mortgage or groceries or my electric bill, it’s so disheartening.”
On all sides, there is optimism that Congress will find some way to extend federal relief — even if the July deadline passes, and workers have to be paid retroactively.
Eighty-one percent of Tampa Bay residents say they support extending the $600 payments, according to a survey released Wednesday by ParentsTogether and the grassroots group Opportunity for All Floridians. In an election year, that number is hard to ignore.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the Democrat-led House in May, calls for the checks to continue through March. The Republican-led Senate is looking at other options, from smaller checks to restrictions on who can receive them, and for how long.
“I think this is going to get extended,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “You’re going to see a multi-month extension, with potentially multi-month extensions beyond this.”
If the benefits end, it’ll have “a pretty dramatic effect” on Florida’s workforce, Brandes said. But he believes the state would find ways to mitigate it, at least in part, should the government allow states greater flexibility in how to spend coronavirus aid.
“While people who are unemployed are focusing on the $600,” he said, “state-level leaders are focusing both on unemployment and the challenges represented in funding priorities like Medicaid, schools and the environment going forward, if the states are forced to deal with it by themselves.”
If the $600 checks are reduced, Eskamani said, it puts additional pressure on the state and utility companies to push back moratoriums on rent, mortgage and bill relief.
“Every social net we have needs to be strengthened immediately,” she said. “We’re preparing, really, for the worst.”
Since losing his marketing job, Bardi estimates he recouped about 60 percent of his salary through unemployment. Knowing the federal $600 payments were set to end, he planned to seek freelance work in August, hoping his family won’t miss that money.
“Partially, I am driven by the idea that the $600 is going away,” he said. “I hate the idea that the $600 is a disincentive to work. It may very well be for some people. It is not for me. I have been applying for jobs. I have gone on interviews. I would much rather have a stable job than a check that could be taken away at any time.”
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