As Unemployment Claims Surge, Millions Are Still Waiting For Expanded Benefits

This family is struggling to afford food while bureaucracy keeps them from getting the money promised by lawmakers.

Martha and Rafael Rodriguez, who are raising their two children in a condo in Renton, Washington, are exactly the kind of people Congress meant to help with the coronavirus stimulus package it passed last week.

They’re among the record number of Americans who are out of work because of the pandemic. The Labor Department announced Thursday that 6.6 million people applied for jobless benefits last week alone. That number is expected to rise ―ultimately, the unemployment rate may hit 32% because of the economic shutdown required to slow the spread of the virus.

Rafael Rodriguez’s job vanished when the state went on lockdown and the local restaurant where he worked shut down. He typically made about $600 per week. Martha Rodriguez’s part-time position as a bilingual instructor at a local preschool is on ice until the schools reopen.

The couple, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico about 15 years ago, is about to run out of the little money they had saved. Rafael Rodriguez is lucky to have a second job, where he earns about $400 a week. But it’s not even enough to cover their mortgage. The family recently had to visit a food bank for supplies.

“We try not to eat too much,” Martha Rodriguez told HuffPost. “I said to my kids, ‘Don’t eat too much.’ It’s hard.”

She said her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son know about the pandemic, but that they don’t really understand what’s going on with their finances.

The Rodriguez family.
The Rodriguez family.
Courtesy Martha Rodriguez

Each of the parents applied for unemployment benefits about a week ago. Martha Rodriguez was turned down because she hadn’t worked enough hours at her part-time job to meet the threshold to qualify for benefits. Her husband was approved, but only for around $100 a week since he still had a side gig. It’s barely enough to cover part of a grocery bill.

It’s not supposed to be like this. The pandemic benefit Congress passed last week is supposed to cover workers in precisely this kind of situation.

Under the new law, everyone who has lost a job because they’ve been furloughed or their employer was forced to shut down or they were laid off would get $600 a week on top of their usual benefit. Even better, all kinds of workers would qualify, including part-timers and gig workers who aren’t usually eligible for benefits.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it “unemployment on steroids.” But steroids don’t work if you can’t get a hold of them.

The problem is that implementing the new jobless benefits is a big bureaucratic procedure. The Department of Labor is supposed to send guidance to the states on how to do it. The states are still waiting.

“It’s a scary, scary time,” said Michelle Evermore, a senior researcher and policy analyst and the National Employment Law Project.

And it’s critical that this increased unemployment benefit gets out as quickly and as smoothly as possible.

The unemployment assistance in the stimulus benefit isn’t like typical jobless benefits, which are meant to provide a cushion to workers as they look for new jobs. Typically, those payments only replace some of a worker’s salary. These benefits are heftier, as they’re actually meant to let people stay home, so social distancing measures can happen without throwing millions of people into poverty.

“This is like a stay-at-home check,” Evermore said.

“I said to my kids, ‘Don’t eat too much.’ It’s hard.”

- Martha Rodriguez

But without sufficient help, many people don’t have the option to stay home. Both the Rodriguezes said they are contemplating applying for jobs at Costco, one of the many essential grocery businesses looking to hire seasonal workers to deal with the crush of shoppers.

But that’s not really an option. Martha Rodriguez probably can’t afford such a job ― she’s home-schooling her kids at the moment, and would somehow have to pay for child care. And Rafael Rodriguez’s side job doesn’t have a consistent schedule, so it would be hard to make another job work.

Once the guidance comes in from the Department of Labor, state unemployment agencies ― already facing an incredible volume of calls from desperate out-of-work people ― have to put a new system in place to hand out benefits.

Some states have already put in place their own beefed-up jobless benefits. At least 27 states have gotten rid of the requirement that you must keep looking for work in order to receive money, which just isn’t possible during this unprecedented time when the economy has essentially been put on hold so Americans can stay home. Others have extended the number of weeks they’d hand out money or waived waiting periods to get benefits.

But the big prize is coming from the stimulus bill, and everyone is just going to have to wait on that.

Courtesy Martha Rodriguez

Washington state isn’t going to be giving out the new pandemic benefits until at least April 18, said Nick Demerice, public affairs director of the state’s employment security department.

“It is a long time to wait for folks,” he said. “Particularly those who haven’t been able to access traditional benefits.”

He emphasized that once Washington did have its system in place, benefits would be paid retroactively.

“It’s super important we get the aid out as fast as we can,” he said. “People desperately need this money and it’s also a tremendous undertaking.”

A handful of Democratic senators recently called Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to go over implementing the rules. And on Wednesday, Schumer, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), sent a letter urging Scalia to act quickly.

“This is an economic and public health crisis of a magnitude that we have not seen in our lifetimes,” Sanders told HuffPost in a statement. “Millions of people right now do not know how they’re going to feed their families.”

The Rodriguezes didn’t even know about the jobless piece of the stimulus bill, and were somewhat hopeful that help was on the way.

Still, Martha Rodriguez is thinking about taking their children to Mexico, where her mother lives, so they can save money on food and her husband can rent out the kids’ room to make ends meet. But, she said, Mexico is also dealing with the pandemic.

Rafael Rodriguez said he’s having a hard time sleeping at night.

If it’s been this hard for their family, longtime citizens who are at least getting that $100 now, Martha Rodriguez is concerned about what it’s like for those in the community who are undocumented.

“We are legal and people think it’s easier for us, but it’s not,” she said. “I can’t imagine people who don’t have papers. In my community it’s going to be awful for all these people.”

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