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Loss of $600 federal benefit adds to the struggles of Maryland’s unemployed

Jessica Wienner, laid off from her job as a paralegal this spring amid the pandemic, waited several months for her unemployment benefits to kick in, relying on her small savings and family members to help pay expenses.

When her benefits finally came through, she caught up on late payments on her car and utilities, reinstated canceled auto insurance and once again bought essential household items. But now the Reisterstown woman is in a “sheer panic.”

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Wienner, 44, will soon need to choose between paying her rent or utilities or food for her and her 17-year-old son after the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits from the CARES Act, a federal coronavirus relief program, ran out last week.

Efforts to renew the enhanced benefit in some form for the roughly 30 million Americans relying on it remained stalled again Friday in Congress with Democrats and Republicans still far apart. Without that added weekly safety net, people thrown out of work in Maryland and elsewhere now face new uncertainties over how to pay for food, housing, utilities and other necessities.

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“The additional $600 gave me the ability to pay my bills, start a slow catch up with my landlord and truly gave me peace knowing we would have this extra funding until we were back to work,” said Wienner, who said she is a cancer survivor with a compromised immune system. “It also provided me relief knowing I was able to keep myself safe by staying inside and away from others.”

With her benefits now cut to $300 a week, and already behind on rent on her townhome, “there is no possible way to support myself on this,” she said. “I am so ashamed that I’ve worked since I was 14 years old and today, I don’t know what to do.”

House Democrats have proposed resuming the enhanced benefit at $600 a week, with one proposal tying a step-down in the amount to improvements in the jobless rate. Senate Republicans have called for cutting the benefit to $200 a week. Those opposed to resuming the higher amount argue that paying people what, in some cases, amounts to more than their weekly salary discourages them from returning to jobs.

A last-ditch effort Friday by Democrats to revive collapsing Capitol Hill talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money ended in disappointment. That makes it increasingly likely that Washington gridlock means more hardship for millions of people who are losing enhanced jobless benefits and further damage for an economy already pummeled by the still-raging coronavirus.

“It was a disappointing meeting,” said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, after he said the White House rejected an offer by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to curb Democratic demands by about $1 trillion. He urged the White House to “negotiate with Democrats and meet us in the middle.”

With the collapse of the talks, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said President Donald Trump was now likely to issue executive orders to prevent home evictions and defer student loan debt.

The breakdown in the talks put at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, called the extra employment benefit a much needed “lifeline.”

“Thousands of Marylanders are at real risk of not being able to pay rent and provide food for their families... but it’s also going to hurt our economy,“ Cardin said Friday. “It has a domino effect. The failure to include these high leverage dollars in the economy, it’s having a pretty dramatic impact.”

When the pandemic shut down much of the state in March, Dan Wallace lost three streams of income at once from his jobs as a professional musician, music teacher and dog walker.

“I can’t make money by playing right now,” said Wallace, a saxophone player from Hampden who also lost most of his students when the stores where he taught sax, clarinet and flute closed.

The extra $600 a week helped him meet make ends meet without dipping too much into his savings.

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“It’s been a great help, and made up for all the money I lost by not being able to play weddings and private events,” said Wallace, 31.

Now he said he feels lucky to still have some savings as a cushion.

But, he said, “if I cant work for the next six months, I don’t have enough savings to get me through that. Eventually if this pandemic lasts through next year and I can’t work and don’t have the extra $600, I won’t be able to pay rent or food or car insurance, everything I need to survive.”

Since March, hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents have become unemployed and the state’s unemployment rate now stands at 8%.

New jobless claims in the state numbered 18,268 during the week ended Aug. 1. That’s fewer than the 23,893 in the prior week, but a sharp increase compared to before the pandemic prompted a stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential workplaces at the end of March. By comparison, 2,090 jobless claims were filed the week ending March 7.

The pandemic has left former Severna Park resident Charles Frank out of work and relying on friends for a place to stay. After losing a job at a Glen Burnie furniture store just before the pandemic struck in February, Frank moved to Florida but was unable to find work during the lockdown period, then was laid off from the job he eventually found. Now, back in Maryland and staying near Ocean City, he’s looking for sales jobs in Baltimore, but few employers are hiring.

Unemployment benefits that were approved in Maryland were suddenly withdrawn in July for what Frank says he was told was possible fraud. He resubmitted requested documents and expects the issues will be resolved. But now he has an additional concern. Payments that come through for weeks after July will be missing the extra $600 and won’t stretch very far.

“I’m upset that I’m in this position,” said Frank, 64. “I expected to find a job quickly in Florida, but it was in lockdown and people weren’t hiring.”

“I have money to eat, but that’s it,” he said. “I can’t pay rent until I become employed again.”

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Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said he has heard from constituents who are counting on the extra $600, though even that is “barely keeping them afloat.”

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“People need it to make ends meet, to pay the bills, rent, mortgage and utilities,” he said Friday. “This is not the time to be pulling the rug out from under those families and workers.”

Van Hollen said he disagreed with a proposal to tie benefits to a percentage of each worker’s earnings, arguing that state unemployment systems, including Maryland’s, are not equipped to make those calculations. And he disagreed with arguments that the benefit discouraged people to return to work.

“As we’re witnessing, these are temporary measures that are only going to last as long as the emergency lasts,” he said. “Having a secure job is a better place to be than having something that could go away any minute.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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