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How Covid-19 unemployment benefits changed these workers’ lives

Part of the Escape Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

You’ve probably heard this talking point: Many of the 30 million Americans who received the extra $600-per-week unemployment benefits passed in the first coronavirus economic stimulus package earned more than they did when they worked full time.

The original CARES act represented a near-unprecedented, if temporary, expansion of the social safety net. According to one estimate by University of Chicago economists in May, as many as 68 percent of newly unemployed workers were on track to collect a higher salary under the enhanced benefits (that is, if they were able to actually get through to swamped unemployment offices to apply). But while some lawmakers have tried to use this phenomenon as a reason to slash the extra benefits — insisting, against all evidence, that it’s convincing people not to return to work at all — the fact that so many workers outearned their salaries on $600 per week (averaging $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek) only highlights the failures of the American labor system.

The numbers tell a clear story: The US is generally not kind to the working class. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a true living wage shakes out to about $16.54 per hour — but no state has a minimum wage that high. According to the researchers, two adults in a family of 4 would each have to work 75 hours a week at minimum wage to meet that living standard.

The average American worker also puts in 1,779 hours a year — not the most hours among the countries in the 37-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development index, but well above peers like Japan (1,644) and Germany (1,386). The OECD Work-Life Balance rankings found that US workers have less leisure time and face higher rates of gender inequity in the workforce than many of the countries on the list. And in normal times, we spend the second-least on unemployment aid after the Slovak Republic.

This lack of a robust safety net, which at times feels held together by glue and duct tape, takes a psychological toll, and many workers know it. All of this made the temporary boost to unemployment benefits an unexpected bright spot for some Americans during this stressful time. As one Reddit thread documented, some people have quietly felt relief from the last few months of unemployment checks: For the first time in years, they were getting a break.

Those federal benefits expired last month. (President Trump has signed an executive order extending benefits to $400 a week, but specifics of its rollout remain to be seen.)

As lawmakers continue to grapple with how much, and for how long, they ought to aid unemployed Americans, Vox talked to three workers about the extra benefits. For each, they offered a much-needed hiatus from the grind of the American labor system. They paid bills, helped out friends, and pursued long-neglected interests. Receiving the extra money didn’t change their minds about their desire for employment — but after years of panicking and overworking themselves, it finally gave them the chance to breathe.

Shannon Murphy, 25, retail worker in New York City

I work in Times Square, so naturally my day looks a lot different than the normal retail worker. We’d see 4,000 customers a day, and all of us work nine-hour shifts.

We would normally get scheduled for around 30 hours a week, but I would pick up shifts to get to 40. I worked myself to the bone. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally burned out. You need to smile 24/7, run around the huge store like a madman. Also, like other Times Square stores, we usually don’t close until 1 am, which meant I was getting home at like 2:30.

Courtesy of Shannon Murphy

I’ve never had a comfortable amount of money in my bank account. If anything ever happened health-wise, I would have been screwed. I was exhausted all the time and just barely making rent. [I had] about $100-$200 per month [left over] for expenses like groceries.

When the pandemic first started getting really serious in New York and my job said we’d be closing for two weeks with pay, I was honestly relieved. I would be able to get some proper rest for the first time in more than a year. Applying for unemployment in New York was a nightmare at the time, [but] I got lucky and got my application through.

For the first time in my life, I had money in my savings. I saved every penny I could. The only time I ever really spent money was to get necessities and some new professional clothes.

When the state started opening back up, I was ready to get back to some semblance of normal. I missed work, I missed my coworkers, but most of all I just missed having somewhere to go.

But [now my hours] have gone down to about five hours per week. After taxes, that’s $50 a week. Pair that with the reduced unemployment, I’m bringing home about $660 a month. I have a good amount in savings [because of the unemployment benefits], but all of it at this point is going to rent. I’ll have enough to cover my rent until December. After that, I’m screwed.

I hate the amount of comments I see that those wanting the extra $600 extended are just no-good, lazy cash-grabbers who don’t want to go back to work. In reality, myself and many others are back at work, but not making nearly as much as we used to. Without that $600, I don’t know what the new year is going to look like for me.

We need to make a livable wage for every single citizen. It shouldn’t have taken a deadly pandemic for people to have some form of money in their bank accounts.

Lea Sorya, 26, optometrist technician in Richmond, Virginia

I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck for as long as I’ve been on my own. I worked as an optometrist technician during the day, and I would frequently pick up shifts at a local restaurant in the evenings.

The position was exhausting. I was considered part-time, paid $10 an hour. My employer made sure that my hours were capped at the maximum of 30 hours to keep me from getting any benefits by being full-time.

Courtesy of Lea Sorya

It gave me little time to do much else, but I’d run to my other job at a restaurant. [And I would] sell house plants on the side for extra cash.

The $600 extra was insane to me. I had never made that much on a paycheck before. It felt weird and unreal. I could actually pay all my bills for a change. I was paying off old debt that I could never make large payments on.

I ended up donating a lot of my money. At some point, I was sending money to friends who needed it more and were denied benefits.

I was able to work on my relationship [with my partner] and take time off to spend time in the mountains to clear my head. I’ve been able to learn a lot more about plants and horticulture.

Since quarantine, I’ve been using my downtime to put toward my business plan. I was hoping to [get] some money to save so I could invest in my own plant business eventually.

It’s been a lot of conflicting feelings on my end. I was happy because I finally had this sense of security, but I also felt guilty. I think about all those essential workers making less than me while I’m home and they’re at work.

Brynmor Ruiz, 23, store manager at video game retailer in Phoenix, Arizona

I’ve been with my company for seven years, since I was 16 years old. I was finally made a store manager last July.

I like the work I do. I get to share my enthusiasm for gaming and help people find a game to get lost in. I have a number of regulars who come in just to see me.

Courtesy of Brynmor Ruiz

[But] as a store lead, it’s incredibly time-consuming. I’m required to work 44 hours a week. I’m hourly, so at least I get paid overtime. But the reality of the situation is that I’m always on call if my team needs me, so I don’t always have days off. Because of the extra work, I’d say [I work] more around 50 hours a week. During the holiday it probably pushed 55 to 60.

You can imagine the toll it takes. We constantly have corporate breathing down our necks about performance and pulling high sales. I’m one of the lower-volume stores. The pressure they put on us is immeasurable. I had a hell of a mental breakdown after the holidays [last year] and had to take an entire week off. As much as I love this job, to say it’s draining would be an understatement.

I was furloughed in the last week of April. After we were guaranteed the extra $600 a week, it feels almost awful to say, but it felt like I was somehow taking advantage of something. I was now making more on unemployment than I had been as a store manager. [My girlfriend and I] went from the fear of financial ruin to being better off. It was at least $200 more every two weeks.

Bills were getting paid easily. We were able to save and help our friends out who were in a tougher spot than we were.

I got to rest for the first time in so, so long. I’m a writer. It’s something I cherish above all else, and I promised myself I would never turn it into a career out of fear that it would ruin my love for it.

Before the pandemic, I had hardly any time to write at all, and I felt guilty about it when I did. I had such little time to myself outside of work. Shouldn’t I have been spending that time helping around the house? Taking care of errands?

But with the time off from work, I’ve had so many more opportunities. I can take a few hours to dedicate to writing, and I know that I can come back to a document if I lose steam for the day. I’m currently working on short stories and my first poetry book. I don’t have to worry about the once-in-a-blue-moon chance to kick-start a new idea. I’ve never felt happier with my writing. I am so scared of losing this feeling, even though I know it comes at a cost now.

Michael Waters is a writer covering politics and economics. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Gizmodo, BuzzFeed, and the Outline.

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