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'Extremely cruel move:' Jobless workers brace for early end to unemployment benefits in 25 states

·Reporter
·5-min read

On Saturday, the $380 in weekly jobless benefits Robyn Gregorieff and her husband had depended on for basic needs got slashed by 79%, leaving the couple with just $80 a week to live on.

She would have been entitled to the larger amount until September if her home state of Alaska didn’t cancel federal unemployment programs early due to mounting concerns over labor shortages.

“It makes no sense because the federal government is paying that,” the 43-year-old Gregorieff told Yahoo Money. “Why would you just take it away besides just to be cruel? The jobs aren't magically going to appear.”

Gregorieff is one of 300,000 workers in Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, and Mississippi whose benefits were significantly reduced or cut to zero starting on June 12. Another 4.2 million workers in 21 more states will join them later this month or in early July when their states eliminate the benefits, too, cutting off a much-needed lifeline.

Robyn Gregorieff and her grandson. Photo: Courtesy of Gregorieff
Robyn Gregorieff and her grandson. Photo: Courtesy of Gregorieff

Gregorieff, who lost her job as a pharmacy technician in January, only started getting unemployment benefits in April because the application process was so slow. A month later, Alaska made the decision to pull out of the programs.

“As Alaska's economy opens up, employers are posting a wide range of job opportunities and workers are needed,” Tamika Ledbetter, Alaska's Department of Labor and Workforce Development commissioner, said in a press release on May 14 announcing the early withdrawal of benefits.

But the job search for Gregorieff has so far been difficult. She can’t find a job as a pharmacy technician and has had no luck getting other types of jobs, either.

“I applied for all sorts of jobs like school bus driver. They don't need drivers because school is out now,” Gregorieff said. “Every single pharmacy technician around town I've applied to… there's only so many pharmacies, so they only need so many pharmacy technicians.”

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‘We wouldn't have food, we wouldn't have our electricity paid’

The move to cancel the federal unemployment programs early gained steam among Republican governors following April's disappointing jobs report. House Republicans — including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — urged all GOP governors to opt out. Massachusetts and Vermont are the only states with GOP governors that have not yet canceled the programs.

On Saturday, workers in Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, and Mississippi lost access to 12 weeks of federally funded benefits. That included the extra $300 in weekly benefits, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for workers who don’t normally qualify for unemployment, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program that provides extra weeks of benefits.

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Nearly 3 in 5 workers affected by the early expiration in the 25 states will be left with no benefits at all.

That includes Lisa Jones, who worked as an event planner for a hotel in St Louis, Missouri, and has been laid off since March 2020. She used to get $580 in benefits, but her last payment was on Saturday.

“If my benefits drop to zero, I will have to be living off my savings,” the 54-year-old told Yahoo Money before the cut-off. “My husband hasn't lost his job in the pandemic, that's what's keeping us afloat.”

Read more: Can your employer force you to get vaccinated? Sometimes.

The cutoff in benefits will also disproportionately hurt people of color.

For instance, two-thirds of unemployment insurance recipients in Mississippi are Black, while around half in South Carolina and Alabama are. The percentage of Black Americans relying on unemployment in those three states is at least three times higher than the national average of 18%.

“This is an extremely cruel move by the 25 Republican governors to end this vital pandemic lifeline early,” Alexa Tapia, unemployment insurance campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, told Yahoo Money. “This is definitely going to harm those workers and it's primarily workers of color.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 04: People receive food from a local charity in the Queens borough of New York City on June 04, 2021 in New York City. The U.S. economy added 559,000 jobs in May, bringing the unemployment rate down to 5.8 percent from 6.1 percent. Despite the positive economic news, millions of Americans are still looking for work or are in need of financial, food, and housing assistance. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People receive food from a local charity in the Queens borough of New York City on June 04, 2021 in New York City. The U.S. economy added 559,000 jobs in May, bringing the unemployment rate down to 5.8 percent from 6.1 percent. Despite the positive economic news, millions of Americans are still looking for work or are in need of financial, food, and housing assistance. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

‘We're not sitting on money’

Around 4.5 million workers in those 25 states stand to collectively lose $25.2 billion in benefits, averaging out to potentially thousands of dollars per worker, if they received the benefits until the federal expiration of September 6, according to an analysis by the Century Foundation.

Gregorieff and her husband have relied on her benefits while he completes a six-week union carpentry apprenticeship that makes him eligible for unemployment, but he’s still waiting on approval. 

Her benefits helped pay for their $945 monthly rent as well as utilities, which added another $410 a month. She was approved for rental relief in April, but is still waiting on the aid. She worries she won’t be able to pay next month’s rent.

Read more: How to negotiate your first salary

“Unemployment has gotten us through these past few weeks that I've been able to get it,” Gregorieff said. “If I didn't have my unemployment, we wouldn't have been able to get any gas, we wouldn't have food, we wouldn't have our electricity paid, we wouldn't have cell phones.”

The extra benefits helped keep both Gregorieff and Jones afloat, but neither received more from unemployment than from their jobs, a factor the GOP blames for keeping workers out of the labor force. Both have actively searched for jobs while receiving benefits, but have had no luck.

“We're not sitting on money and we're not playing with the money,” Jones said. “The money is a good help from the government, but it's like a catch-up game. I'll catch up now, but I'll fall back again because it's going to stop.”

Yahoo Money sister site Cashay has a weekly newsletter.
Yahoo Money sister site Cashay has a weekly newsletter.

Denitsa is a writer for Yahoo Finance and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova

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