CHICAGO — With millions out of work because of the pandemic, Congress boosted unemployment payments by $600 a week, but that program is about to end.
Those without jobs say they’re in a desperate situation. With millions out of work, if the boosted benefits expire, the entire economy will feel the impact.
A cry for help echoed through Federal Plaza downtown Friday as dozens of unemployed restaurant and bar workers, facing the prospect of losing a lifeline, pleaded for an extension of an extra $600 unemployment benefit.
“The legislators are up here in this building, and what these people are crying out about is, ‘We pay our taxes, we feed you. Don’t forget about us,’” one protester said.
The $600 a week benefit was put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, and it is set to expire this weekend, with millions still out of work.
“Jobs just aren’t around. No one is hiring right now. It’s been really tough,” Mitsuru Nelson, who is unemployed, said.
Nelson, 29, lost his job as the assistant manager of Blackbird — the acclaimed West Loop restaurant that closed its doors for good last month amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“The extra money that we’re getting through the $600 is crucial just to get by,” he said.
Mac Wallach, 28, an New York University grad and Broadway veteran, was training at the Steppenwolf Theatre and working at a restaurant to get by. Both of his jobs vanished, and now the extra unemployment benefit may be gone, too.
“This extra $600 is not something that’s like covetous, it’s not something we’re trying to hang on to just save money. Without this, I can’t pay my insurance, I can’t pay my rent and I can’t feed myself,” he said.
During the rally, some decried the maddening maze of phone calls and paperwork needed to collect unemployment.
One woman said she was approved for unemployment on May 11 after she lost her job.
“I have seen literally not a single cent, and next month, I’m moving into a car. I have no money. I have no prospects and I’m F-ing lucky,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said he’s spoken with Gov. JB Pritzker about the long wait times.
Congressional leaders are negotiating a new relief package but Republicans have argued the extra $600 was too generous — that some are making more on unemployment than they did while working and they worry the extra money disincentivizes going back to work.
“They’re saying it’s too much, that people aren’t going to work again?” one protester said. “I don’t think that’s an argument to not provide the money. I think what that shows is that a lot of people aren’t making a living wage to begin with.”
If Congress lets the unemployment insurance expire with no replacement, those without jobs will have to rely on state unemployment which pays less than half of your wages — with a maximum of $484 a week.