Two anchors of COVID safety net ending
WASHINGTON — Mary Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the COVID pandemic. A housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, the single mother of two saw her income completely vanish as the virus devastated the hospitality industry.
For more than a year, Taboniar depended entirely on boosted unemployment benefits and a network of local foodbanks to feed her family. Even this summer as the vaccine rollout took hold and tourists began to travel again, her work was slow to return, peaking at 11 days in August — about half her pre-pandemic workload.
Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. Two primary anchors of the government’s COVID protection package are ending or have recently ended. Starting Monday, an estimated 8.9 million people will lose all unemployment benefits. A federal eviction moratorium already has expired.
While other aspects of pandemic assistance including rental aid and the expanded Child Tax Credit are still widely available, untold millions of Americans will face Labor Day with a suddenly shrunken social safety net.
“This will be a double whammy of hardship,” said Jamie Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, a union that represents custodians in office buildings and food service workers in airports. “We’re not anywhere near done. People still need help. … For millions of people nothing has changed from a year and a half ago.”
For Taboniar, 43, that means her unemployment benefits will completely disappear — even as her work hours vanish again. A fresh virus surge prompted Hawaii’s governor to recommend that vacationers delay their plans.
“It’s really scaring me,” she said. “How can I pay rent if I don’t have unemployment and my job isn’t back?”
She’s planning to apply for the newly expanded SNAP assistance program, better known as food stamps, but doubts that will be enough to make up the difference. “I’m just grasping for anything,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s administration believes the U.S. economy is strong enough not to be rattled by evictions or the drop in unemployment benefits. Officials maintain that other elements of the safety net, like the Child Tax Credit and the SNAP program (which Biden permanently boosted earlier this summer) are enough to smooth things over. On Friday, a White House spokesperson said there were no plans to reevaluate the end of the unemployment benefits.
“Twenty-two-trillion-dollar economies work in no small part on momentum and we have strong momentum going in the right direction on behalf of the American workforce,” said Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he believed the country’s labor force was ready for the shift.
“Overall the economy is moving forward and recovering,” Walsh said in an interview. “I think the American economy and the American worker are in a better position going into Labor Day 2021 than they were on Labor Day 2020.”