‘Right now, I’m in panic mode’: US freelancers plead with Congress to pass Covid relief | US economy

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Suzy Young, an artist in Winterport, Maine, cheered when Congress enacted an innovative program that provided unemployment benefits to artists, freelancers and the self-employed after Covid-19 hit the US. But like many others, Young – whose art sales have plunged in recent months – is angry that this pandemic aid program is due to expire the day after Christmas.

Young was already upset that the most generous part of the program – $600 a week in supplemental jobless benefits – expired in July, but now she fears she will lose all her jobless benefits. Four months behind on her $1,800 rent, she is fighting her landlord’s effort to evict her and her disabled husband on 1 January.

“Congress needs to do something, or a lot of people are going to face homelessness,” said Young, 58. A fiber artist who weaves works out of wool, Young saw her income disappear when the farmers market where she sold her work was closed due to the lockdown. “That killed my business,” she said. She was getting by while receiving the $600 weekly supplement, but once that disappeared, her unemployment benefits fell to $172 a week.

A study by the Century Foundation estimates that 7.3 million freelancers, artists, self-employed and others will lose their weekly benefits if the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (known as PUA) expires, as scheduled, after Christmas. That program is unusual because jobless benefits traditionally go only to laid-off workers who are considered employees – and not to freelancers or the self-employed. A second program – Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – is also scheduled to expire 26 December, ending special federal benefits for 4.6 million laid-off workers who were considered employees.

“A lot of these people [freelancers and the self-employed] were out of work, and not eligible for regular unemployment benefits,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “This program has been really successful. These people really need this bridge until the economy gets back to a better place.” After the $600 benefit supplement expired in July, freelancers and the self-employed continued receiving regular unemployment benefits, but the average nationwide for them has been just $207 a week, although it’s two or three times that in some states.

Last Tuesday, a bipartisan group of nine senators proposed a $908bn stimulus and relief package that included a $300 weekly jobless supplement, half the former $600. The senators said their plan “would increase unemployment benefits to help families make ends meet”. That same day, five Democratic senators, including minority leader Chuck Schumer, proposed a relief plan that would restore the $600 boost in benefits as well as extend normal jobless benefits by 26 weeks. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on the bipartisan plan, saying: “We just don’t have time to waste time.”

Rafael Espinal, president of the 500,000-member Freelancers Union, said the senators’ $300-a-week proposal was inadequate. “Considering the cost of living in cities, $300 isn’t going to allow people to pay their rent or meet other demands.”

Grant McDonald, a New York-based video director who films concerts and special events, has had little work since March and worries about PUA expiring. “It’s pretty drastic sitting here, waiting for my savings to run out,” he said. McDonald fears he will soon fall behind on his rent; he may then move in with his father.

“I have worked very hard to build a career in this city,” McDonald said, worried that leaving New York will set back his career.

McDonald and Stephanie Freed, who lights fashion shows and other special events, founded ExtendPUA, a group that has lobbied dozens of senators and representatives to extend pandemic assistance and restore the $600 supplement. Many Republicans oppose the $600 level, saying it costs too much and discourages people from seeking work.

But ExtendPUA argues that it’s not wise to press people to look for work when the pandemic is raging or when skilled people with long careers, on Broadway, for instance, have little idea when they’ll return to regular work.

“Any economist will say you don’t want skilled people to give up their work and not be able to get back to what they’ve given up,” Stettner said. “We can see that the vaccine will make everything better, and if we can just extend these benefits a little longer, it will make a big difference for a lot of people. If you lose your car or get evicted, those are not easy things to recover from.”

Steve Gregg stopped working as an Uber driver in San Francisco after Covid-19 hit – he has diabetes and lung problems. Greg said the $600 supplement, on top of his $450 in regular weekly jobless benefits, “saved me, I would have lost my home.” But with the $600 expired, Gregg, divorced and paying child support, has moved into a single room in Modesto he shares with a cousin. “If they want us not to be homeless, they better pass something,” Gregg said. “I have no flexibility. I’ve cut back on many things.”

Friends tell Gregg he has an extraordinary voice and should do TV voiceovers, but he doesn’t have the several hundred dollars to go to a studio to prepare a proper sample recording.

Shan Grimm, a guitarist for jazz and R&B bands in New Orleans, fears she and her daughter will be evicted once the moratorium on evictions ends. She receives $247 a week in jobless benefits, but her rent is $850 a month, her car insurance $193 and her phone $60. “I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do, where I’m going to go,” said Grimm, who also worked as a bartender. “Even $300 a week would make a big difference. Right now, I’m in panic mode. I have $107 in my bank account. I’ve been eating once a day.”

“We are the people and Congress needs to hear us,” Grimm added. “We need to help people out here from starving. We need Congress to hear us, we’re in the worst place.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Right now, I’m in panic mode’: US freelancers plead with Congress to pass Covid relief | US economy

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