Unemployed workers anxious about future of extra $600 benefit

Millions of unemployed Americans are anxiously waiting to see what the future holds for the $600 weekly boost to unemployment benefits. 

The benefits program was designed to help the estimated 25 million Americans receiving it pay for essentials.  

The enhancement is set to expire and the end of the month. "We are all dreading the August 1st date," said Allison Bruley, an event planner from Livermore. "We call it doomsday.”

Bruley fears reality is about to hit her family hard.  

After she was furloughed in March from her job as an event planner, her position was recently eliminated. Her husband was also laid off from his job in concert production. The couple's careers have been devastated by shelter-in-place orders.

Looking for ways to pay their bills and take care of their two children, Bruley says she began applying for five to ten jobs each day in different industries, but nothing panned out.  

After immediately applying for unemployment, the couple began to receive the $600 weekly boost on top of state benefits. 

“We live in the Bay Area, the cost of raising children and living the lifestyle in the Bay Area is extremely expensive," said Bruley. "The $600 saved our lives, essentially.”

Vernice Scott, a banquet server at the Oakland Marriott, who has worked there for 31 years, also relies on the $600 to pay bills. She's begging for it to continue. “If you’re going to shut down the economy, you have to be responsible for helping people, without any restrictions," said Scott. 

For Scott and Bruley, the extra $600 is necessary to keep their homes and afford necessities. But beyond meeting peoples' basic needs, economists say that the $600 supplement also bolsters the economy, and that removing it could have bleak long term consequences.

Julia Wolfe, an economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute said that if Congress does not act swiftly, and the supplement expires on the 25th, this change will represent a "huge loss of income for people in the immediate term, but also it will have serious economic consequences for the recovery down the line as well."

As Congress negotiates the next relief bill, there's disagreement over the future of the $600 boost. Democrats want it continued, some Republicans want it eliminated and others agree with a plan to reduce it.  

“We’re not going to pay people more money to stay at home than work, but we want to make sure the people that are out there who can’t find jobs, do get a reasonable wage replacement," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in an interview with CNBC. 

The White House and GOP plan calls for a 70% wage replacement, which some economists say would reduce the bonus to about $200. But, details are still not clear. 

“There’s more than 14 million more unemployed people than job openings," said Heidi Sheirholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. "You’re not going to incentivize those people to take a job, it will just cause pain.”  

Desiree Tatarazuk, a server at a San Francisco steakhouse and a university student, said that she understands the argument for removing the $600 supplement is that it disincentivizes people returning to work, but "we don't have work to go back to." She said she is also dubious about the safety of working as a server or dishwasher in a restaurant at the moment.

Omar Yacoubi, a rideshare and food delivery driver who lives in Belmont, said that he was working for a few weeks at the start of the shelter in place, but he made such little money that he could no longer pay for the rental car he drove for work. He then began collecting unemployment.

"I've used some of the federal bonus on a down payment for a used car to try to lower my monthly payment," he said. "And I'm going to have to start making payments on that car. So between car, rent and food, I'm actually gonna have to start working again once the bonus goes away."

Yacoubi said that he does not feel safe working, as being in a car with people who might be sick is risky. He said he has experienced what he felt were "close calls with the virus" where he was driving people who were visibly ill.

"I am worried that, at some point, I'm going to slip or there's going to be an extended exposure that I can't prevent," he said.

Shierholz argues that cutting the bonus would also cause even more job loss.  

As lawmakers battle over the future of the program, Bruley is trying to stay hopeful.

“Living in a really large unknown, that’s difficult to wake up to every morning," she said.