A Million Unemployed New Yorkers are About to Fall Off a Fiscal Cliff

Federal unemployment benefits expire at the end of the month. With no relief in sight from Washington or Albany, many New Yorkers are desperate.

Daniel Moritz-Rabson   ·   December 3, 2020
An estimated 1.1 million New Yorkers' unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of December, when an aid program authorized by the CARES Act is cut off. | Tobias Wrzal

Lisa Mistretta hadn’t missed a rent payment in 32 years before the coronavirus pandemic left her unemployed. When COVID-19 spread across the state, Mistretta, a hospice nurse who has emphysema and an inflammatory lung disease, stopped working. The Hudson Valley resident now receives $276 each week from the New York Department of Labor and said she is struggling to keep up with bills while taking care of her two teenage daughters. At the end of this month, her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is slated to stop.

Mistretta is one of an estimated 1.1 million New Yorkers whose unemployment benefits will expire at the end of December, when one of the enhanced aid programs authorized by the CARES Act is cut off, according to a report from The Century Foundation.

“I’m one month behind on my rent. Where are we going to go when that happens?” Mistretta said. She worried that she may have to start a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, like she did in the spring when her initial unemployment payments were delayed. “It’s really scary. I don’t know what we’re going to do anymore.”

In the spring, as New York issued stay-at-home orders and the economy ground to a halt, Congress passed an economic stimulus package extending and expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits. The financial lift provided by stimulus checks, supplemental $600-per-week payments for those receiving unemployment and six weeks of $300-per-week payments during the summer, has disappeared. Now, New Yorkers are staring down a financial abyss, as unemployment programs authorized in March are set to expire just days before the lapse of federal and state moratoriums on evictions. 

“People right now are in a mode of panic,” said Thahitun Mariam, who founded the Bronx Mutual Aid Network in early April. The community organization has provided food deliveries for up to 300 families each week in recent months. Demand for assistance had diminished in August, but surged again in the past two weeks. “It’s a disaster, what we’re about to experience,” Mariam said. 

Freelancers, self-employed people and others who are typically ineligible for unemployment benefits but received them because of the CARES Act will lose all joblessness benefits after December 26. In addition to the 1.1 million people receiving this aid in New York, 365,000 others who received extra weeks of unemployment benefits through the CARES Act will remain eligible for extended benefits but will still lose weeks of aid. Still others who were unemployed before the pandemic have already received the maximum amount of benefits authorized.

The state Labor Department said it couldn’t provide exact numbers on the number of individuals losing benefits “for a number of reasons,” including that some people may re-enter the workforce. 

Faced with the looming crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo has urged the federal government to extend the benefits. “Congress must take action before the calendar year ends, and anything else would be an abdication of your duty,” he wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders late last month.

The federal aid pales in comparison to that offered after the 2008 economic crash, even though COVID-19 caused unemployment rates far higher than those seen during the Great Recession. At that time, Congress authorized as many as 99 weeks of unemployment benefits for jobless Americans. 

But with the fiscal cliff less than a month away and Senate Republicans unwilling to compromise on a relief package, some state legislators say New York needs to act on its own.

“It’s really critical that Congress act quickly. But if they’re not going to, it’s also incumbent on the state to step up,” Assemblywoman Nily Rozic said, stressing that the loss of unemployment aid would heavily impact those who help make New York a revered cultural center. 

“It’s not just the worker that you usually think of, but also freelancers, people who work in the restaurant industry. Those are kinds of industries that are unique to New York. We’ve certainly seen an even bigger impact in those industries.”

Unemployed New Yorkers also questioned why state officials hadn’t moved to provide relief.

“I don’t know why Cuomo hasn’t stepped up,” Mistretta said. “I see other states doing different things for their citizens.”

In the absence of federal action, some other states have authorized a financial lifeline. New Mexico’s governor signed a bill providing unemployed workers a $1,200 payment last week, as part of a $330 million stimulus package. (Undocumented immigrants would receive smaller payments). Rhode Island’s governor approved additional unemployment payments of $200 per week. Minnesota’s governor extended unemployment benefits for 13 more weeks. Colorado is sending $375 checks to some unemployed workers. 

After the $600 per week payments to unemployed people expired in July, Rozic introduced legislation that would provide unemployed New Yorkers $600 weekly payments, starting in August. The legislation has not been advanced by the assembly, which has been on recess, but Rozic has seven co-sponsors and said she’s hopeful that “this would be one of our priorities.” 

Rozic and State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey, who introduced the bill’s companion into the senate, said funding the stimulus package should be a top priority—even as New York eyes a looming budget crunch. 

“You balance fiscal constraints or restraints with the will of the people, but ultimately we have to make sure that the people are able to take care of themselves, to feed themselves, to shelter themselves,” Bailey said.

The same financial pressures that have strained so many New Yorkers have also squeezed the state budget. Asked about the state bill, the governor’s budget office emphasized the need for federal relief.

“If the bills are passed we will review them,” Freeman Klopott, the spokesperson for the budget division, said. “That said, New York State is facing a two-year, $30 billion revenue loss due entirely to the pandemic and the unemployment insurance fund spent two years of benefits in just two months – now more than $55 billion delivered to 3.8 million New Yorkers since the start of the COVID crisis.”

Allowing New Yorkers to lose unemployment benefits could carry a heftier price tag, Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst with nonprofit Community Service Society (CSS), said.

“The deficit doesn’t get any better with unemployed people struggling deeper. The costs of services associated with expanding and deepening poverty statewide would far outstrip the cost of paying to keep people housed and paying to get homeless people into stable housing.”

An eviction moratorium that would last a year after the pandemic ended would also provide New Yorkers with a crucial safety net and wouldn’t cost money, Stein added. A housing voucher program, which has been proposed in the senate, would also benefit the state’s most vulnerable.

New York has the nation’s third-highest unemployment rate. New York City has particularly suffered: officially, the city’s unemployment rate is 13.2 percent, but research has suggested that the actual figure is much higher. 

“For Black people, we were already struggling with our small businesses before. We tend to not get hired at the level we should be hired anyway. And we’re getting paid a lot less,” said Courtney Henley, a Brooklyn based media planner for small businesses. Henley’s clients often flew into New York for their events, meaning her business has mostly dried up. 

Henley considers herself “very blessed” because she was able to save some of the $600 supplemental payments, but that money is nearly gone—and her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will soon dry up, too. “Once there’s nothing coming in, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

The pandemic’s economic burden has not been distributed equally, either nationally or in New York City. Low-income workers, communities of color and those without a college education are taking the largest financial hit, CSS polling has shown. Low-income workers are more economically unstable than they were during the Great Recession, CSS found. 

Facing budget deficits, the city has moved to cut programs vital to some of the most economically vulnerable. Over the summer, the city said it would be cutting Fair Fares, a transit program that offers half-priced rides for low-income New Yorkers. 

“In addition to waiting for federal relief to come through, locally, we need to prioritize expansion of programs that are helping alleviate hardship and helping New Yorkers stay in their homes,” Irene Lew, a policy analyst at CSS, said.

State relief could particularly benefit the 725,000 undocumented New Yorkers who have been unable to receive the unemployment benefits authorized by the CARES Act aid and are largely cut off from relief programs. Senator Bailey said he hoped the his bill, if passed, would include unemployment payments for undocumented workers.

“Even the people with all this education and all this legal paperwork can’t find jobs, making it worse for me, who doesn’t have any rights in this country. So it’s not easy, and I couldn’t get unemployment [benefits] or any help from any government because it’s like I don’t exist in this country,” said Ameela, an undocumented immigrant who lives in New York City and asked to only be identified by her first name. 

With so many in need, relief programs have been flooded with demand. The city estimated in May that nearly a quarter of its residents had inadequate food. New York City food pantries and kitchens have fed 65 percent more people in 2020 than in the previous year, according to a study from Hunger Free America. Across the state, nearly 15 percent of food banks that participated in the survey said they needed to limit the services provided because they couldn’t meet demand.

Many New Yorkers are left to decide which necessity to forgo. 

“Between rent, utilities, cable, cell phone, car insurance—my axle is going, and I have zero money to get it fixed—food, etcetera, I’m about to lose everything I busted my butt for,” said Stacy May, an immunocompromised mother in Long Island. 

Before the pandemic, she worked in the healthcare field. Now, May scrapes by on just $159 per week from the Labor Department. Come January, she’ll lose even that. 

“I feel so helpless,” she said.

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