WASHINGTON — Morgan Childers applies for work every day in and around her hometown of Cullowhee, North Carolina, but the only jobs available have been ones that would put her in danger.
Childers, 30, has chronic health conditions and is immunocompromised. For that reason, she’s desperate to find a job that doesn’t have her facing customers all day. She has an administrative background and is trying to find something in an office. But in her part of western North Carolina, those jobs are hard to come by right now.
“It’s really stressful too because there’s this view that people who aren’t taking jobs like Walmart or fast-food companies are just lazy and want to leech off of the government. And that’s just not the case at all,” she said. “I’m desperate for a job. I’ve been applying for jobs daily since March and I’ve yet to find one. I’m not optimistic.”
One saving grace was that shortly after she lost her job at a local university, Congress passed the CARES Act, providing $600 per week in federal unemployment insurance aid on top of state benefits. With this support, Childers has been able to continue paying for essentials like rent and health insurance.
After this weekend, the unemployment subsidy expires. Congress plans to pass another coronavirus aid bill but is moving at a snail’s pace. Republicans spent the entire week debating among themselves on a proposal. Bipartisan talks have not yet even begun. The Senate left Washington on Thursday and won’t return until Monday, after the benefits expire. At the least, a temporary lapse in unemployment aid is all but certain.
This is happening right as millions of people are being exposed to the threat of eviction. When the coronavirus pandemic first caused a spike in unemployment, state and local governments enacted moratoriums on evictions and shutting off utilities. But now those have expired in about half the states in the country. The eviction ban in Illinois ends in late August. In Florida, it expires Aug. 1. A steady stream of moratoriums lapsing is scheduled to continue throughout the month of August.
Over 30 million people are drawing unemployment and will be left with state benefits only, which tend to be less than half of the federal amount.
Economists have been waiting for a surge of evictions since the pandemic hit — but even with the moratoriums that have expired already, that hasn’t happened, said Jenny Schuetz, an urban economist and fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. That seems to largely be because of the CARES Act, but also in part because courthouses have been closed so landlords can’t file eviction notices. Courthouses reopening and aid from the CARES Act expiring could lay the groundwork for a spike in evictions in August.
Schuetz said that even a lapse in support will be difficult to bear for many people who are unable to find work.
“There are a lot of people who are just hanging on by their fingernails,” Schuetz said. “These are people who have essentially no financial cushion; they are struggling to pay rent at the best of times. For those households, any disruption is going to make it difficult for them to pay.”
Schuetz said there is just not enough data to know how big the potential eviction bubble is. She said many landlords may hold off because they don’t think they can find new tenants. Other renters will be forced into homelessness or taking jobs that put their health at risk.
“There’s a sense there’s a lot of distress coming once the courts are up and running, but really there’s not a lot of hard data on this,” said Schuetz.
Republicans broadly oppose extending the $600-per-week unemployment benefit, arguing that it is too generous and creates a disincentive to return to work. They have been internally debating how to extend a smaller amount of aid. One proposal would be that state and federal aid combined can only add up to 70% of a person’s previous income. But because of antiquated technology in some states, it’s not clear whether such a complex system could even be enacted; Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia previously told Congress that it could not.
Another option is simply extending federal aid at a lower number; some Republican senators have floated the idea of cutting the amount to $200 per week.
Advocacy groups are trying to put pressure on vulnerable Republicans to extend benefits. In North Carolina, a progressive PAC called Piedmont Rising has been running ads against Sen. Thom Tillis, who is in the midst of a tough reelection fight, accusing him of making it harder for people to afford essential healthcare.
“We’re days away from a crisis if these federal unemployment benefits aren’t renewed,” said Casey Wilkinson, executive director of Piedmont Rising. “There’s going to be a very real human impact. People are not going to be able to afford their groceries, their prescription drugs, their rent.”
Democrats support the unemployment aid and control the House of Representatives. But as CARES Act provisions begin to expire this weekend, bipartisan talks have not even begun and a second bill remains in limbo. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell laughed and said “no” when asked if the bill could pass Congress by the end of next week. And there isn’t much time left to get a deal; Congress is planning to leave Washington, DC, for a monthlong break (its annual August recess) in the next two weeks.
Childers said she is still applying for jobs every day, but it’s very competitive in a small town with limited opportunities. She has some savings, but she said that without the additional unemployment aid, between rent and health costs, it won’t be long before she has to take any job she can get, despite her high-risk status.
“I think that’s basically what I’ll be forced into within the next three weeks,” she said. “I’ll be forced to get a job that puts my health at risk.”