Two months after Republicans refused to extend the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit, some Americans find themselves in a downward spiral of financial, emotional, and mental anguish.
Whitney Anne Adams has never cried this much in her life.
The 34-year-old costume designer lost her job in March, when production on her film shut down and she found herself stuck in Atlanta, Georgia, nearly 900 miles from her home in New York City. Adams eventually made it back to New York, and for the next few months, was able to scrape by thanks to her credit cards and the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit approved by Congress in March.
But the Trump administration and the Republican-led Senate refused to extend that benefit past the end of July, even as the coronavirus pandemic spiraled out of control, slowing the nation’s economic recovery. That decision left Adams and more than 20 million others without a critical economic lifeline.
COURIER first spoke to Adams and other jobless workers in mid-July, before the $600-a-week benefit expired. In late September, we checked back in with Adams and others to see how their lives had changed since those payments ended.
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In Adams’ case, she had just returned to work on her film, which resumed production in Atlanta after a six-month hiatus. But the paycheck will be short-lived; she only has about a month left on the film and then she will be unemployed again. Even though she’s grateful to have a job for the time being, the stress of not having worked for half a year and her fears about the future have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse.
“I am not a huge emotional person, I’m pretty logical, I’m very practical,” Adams told COURIER in late September. “But I’ve cried more in the last three months than I have in my entire life.”
Adams did receive $300 a week from the Lost Wages Assistance Program, a short-term jobless benefit program enacted by President Donald Trump in August. That money, however, was siphoned away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and people could only receive up to six weeks of payments.
Those funds represented just a drop in the bucket of what Adams needed, forcing her to go further into debt just to survive being jobless.
“I spent 12 years getting out of debt. I was debt-free in February of this year and as of last month, I was $15,000 in debt,” Adams said. “I eliminated every extra thing that I had and I was just down to the bare bones, but without that extra benefit, I was just hemorrhaging money. I was just throwing everything on my credit card—and that is a privilege in and of itself, being able to have empty credit cards to throw things onto—but that’s going to be really tough for me down the line. I’m really feeling the effects of that and then the interest compounding and adding on top of that—it just is really depressing.”
The federal government’s failure to help people like her makes Adams feel like she doesn’t matter to her country. “It’s been the worst year of my life, like many other people,” she said.
Kazz Walding, a 36-year-old stagehand for entertainment, film, and television productions based in Atlanta, is one of those people. She and many of her fellow union members have struggled with the mental health, financial, and personal consequences of losing their jobs during the pandemic.
“I’ve dealt with depression before, [but] I’ve never dealt with anything like what this situation has done,” Walding said. She also received $300 a week from the Lost Wages program, but she called the money “dirty” because it had been taken from FEMA just ahead of hurricane season. “It’s not right. None of this should be working this way.”
“Anybody who has half a brain understands that the way the economy is actually driven is by the people who are making purchases from businesses in that economy,” she continued. “It’s not driven by rich CEOs lining their pockets—it’s driven by us, the working people.”
Economists largely agreed that the benefit was critical to preventing further economic collapse, but that did little to sway Republicans. Walding believes the GOP allowed the benefit to expire because they knew it would force the working class back to work, regardless of the consequences.
“They’re killing the economy and they’re killing the people along with it,” Walding said.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 207,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Another 26.5 million are currently receiving jobless benefits, more than six months after the economic collapse first began.
“It makes me so angry,” Walding said. “I get that shaking feeling in my chest like I’m just going to start screaming at someone.”
Adams was similarly furious at the Republican failure to act, especially since the Senate has moved at a record pace to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“To see no action being taken and the fact that they’re taking action immediately on filling the Supreme Court justice seat that is now open hurts even more. It’s so depressing and it makes me so angry,” Adams said. “How is that more important than the millions of Americans who are suffering every single day and have been for over six months now? It makes no sense to me … They do not care about the American people at all.”
Pushing Through the Best They Can
Without the additional weekly $600 in unemployment, Walding was forced to take a new job as an auto mechanic. She now earns half of what she used to make as a union stagehand. She had no experience repairing cars, but said her technical skills and past experiences in customer service and sales translate over nicely.
“It puts food on the table and it pays the bills and it’s tight, but it will do,” Walding said. “That’s the best that I can do.”
Many others, such as Emily Cawood, a 41-year-old stage technician and live events programmer in Austin, Texas, remain jobless to this day. “I’m still unemployed and my unemployment runs out in two weeks,” Cawood told COURIER in late September.
Like Walding and Adams, Cawood has struggled with her mental and emotional well-being in recent months as she’s realized how far back the pandemic has set her life and career.
“Right before COVID happened, I finally had a full-time job in live entertainment and I was like ‘Great, I never have to worry again about where the next paycheck is coming from, I have health insurance, I finally at the age of 40 arrived,’” she said. “Now I have to think about how to be thrifty again. I don’t know when I’ll have health insurance again because I can’t afford it right now. It just sucks to feel like you’ve finally hit that peak and you’ve done everything right and you’re a good person and it all just gets taken away by no fault of your own.”
With few other options, Cawood is taking a bit of a leap of faith and starting her own business alongside two friends. She described it as a “modernized version of the singing telegram company,” and hopes that they’ll be able to take live performances on the road to people who are missing them while simultaneously helping performers eke out a living.
She’s not sure whether the business will be a success or a failure, but all she can do is keep hoping and put in the work.
“I’ve been pushing through the best that I can,” Cawood said.
Adams and Walding are similarly unsure what their futures hold. Their uncertainty, fear, and anger were palpable.
“We need work. And we need help,” Walding said. “How long are we supposed to be spending 18 hours a day answering unemployment calls? How long are we supposed to be bailing out our girlfriends from abusive spouses’ houses? How long are we supposed to be bailing out our friends every time they feel like they’re going to kill themselves. And where are we going to find the money to help each other out with bills?”
Fighting back tears as she spoke, Walding summed up her feelings about the situation she and millions of others have been forced into with three words.
“This is crap.”