Millions of Americans are poised to lose their unemployment benefits in one month's time, as the massive safety net that Congress put in place in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic begins to unravel.
A new report published by the left-leaning Century Foundation found that 7.5 million workers face the loss of jobless aid on Sept. 6 – Labor Day, the official cut-off date for three relief programs that were first created in March 2020 and renewed twice by Congress as the virus forced an unprecedented shutdown of the nation's economy, pushing unemployment to the highest level since the Great Depression.
In addition to providing workers with an extra $300 a week on top of their regular state benefits, the programs offered aid to workers who were not typically eligible and extended state unemployment benefits once they had been exhausted.
But as the economy reopens, companies have complained about a lack of available workers: There are still some 5.5 million unemployed Americans, despite the staggering 9.2 million open jobs. Already, 23 states – all but one of which is led by a Republican governor – have ended the unemployment programs, a move intended to help businesses that are struggling to hire workers. (Arkansas, Indiana and Maryland were ordered by state judges to reinstate the relief programs.)
Critics argue that other factors, such as a lack of child care, are the reason for lackluster hiring and have said that opting out of the relief program before it's officially slated to end will hurt unemployed Americans, leaving them with no income as they search for a new job.
"With the U.S. economy still short 6.5 million jobs as of the end of June 2021, the end of the pandemic unemployment benefits will be an abrupt jolt to millions of Americans who won’t find a job in time for this arbitrary end to assistance," Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote in the Wednesday report.
Despite the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which has prompted states to restore mask mandates and businesses to reverse return-to-work policies, there appears to be little momentum on Capitol Hill to extend the unemployment relief programs.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday the administration has not decided whether the extra benefits should expire in September – a reverse from Biden's previous stance in June, when he said it "made sense" for the programs to lapse in the fall.
"There has not been any decision about this at this point," she told reporters.
The average state unemployment benefit is about $330 per week. With the federal supplement, Americans are receiving about $630 in weekly unemployment benefits. (For comparison's sake, that's about $32,000 annually, or roughly double the nation's minimum wage.)