For seven weeks, LaShondra White felt like she was holding her breath, hoping to avoid any unexpected disasters.
Seven weeks was the amount of time that passed between White losing her part-time job and receiving her full unemployment benefits.
“I budgeted every single penny,” said White, 49, who was laid off from the department store she had worked at for nine years. “If anything crazy like a health issue or anything like that would have happened, or even just a major repair around the house, we would have been done.”
Things were already tight for White, a licensed cosmetologist and single parent who lives in Detroit. She had worked reduced hours through most of the pandemic. In June, after her company merged with another, she was told she would have to reapply for her position. White was cautioned that there was no guarantee she would get the job, and she would need to take a pay cut.
It came as a shock to White. No one could tell her exactly what the pay would be, but she knew it would be less than the $160 a week net pay she was currently making. With a teenage boy at home, there was no way she could afford to live on those wages.
“They politely ‘released’ me,” said White. “It showed me I meant nothing.”
She used to watch the White House press briefings, but it became too upsetting to hear government officials talk about the “recovery.”
“I don’t know why they keep calling it that,” said White, who now advocates for other unemployed workers. “Wall Street doesn’t dictate what’s happening right here in my house, or on my street.”
White is not alone. Last week, a dismal jobs report stoked new concerns that the delta variant, currently causing surges of coronavirus infections across the United States, has thrown a wrench in the American economy. The report came just days before pandemic-era unemployment benefits were set to expire for more than 7 million Americans.
Government data also showed a drop in child-care employment and women’s participation in labor force — two areas that have been inextricably connected throughout the pandemic. The dip was especially dramatic for women between the ages of 25 and 54.
The numbers suggest that, 18 months into the pandemic, American moms are still forced to choose between work and caregiving responsibilities. Racial inequality in the economic recovery has also persisted: The unemployment rate for Black women and men rose to almost double that of the White unemployment rate. Meanwhile, jobless rates for White, Asian and Latino Americans improved in August.
The strain of providing care to children and elders continues to shut women — especially women of color — out of the workforce, said Rebecca Dixon, executive director the National Employment Law Project, a national workers’ rights advocacy group.
School reopenings have not brought the stability many hoped it would, Dixon said. Parents remain nervous that on any given day, their child may need to be sent home to quarantine.
“With that being what women are facing, it’s ridiculous to end unemployment insurance benefits,” Dixon said.
Through Congress’s covid relief package, first passed in March 2020, two federal programs helped cover unemployed workers who either did not qualify for regular unemployment benefits, such as gig workers, and those whose regular benefits had expired. Millions more received a $300-per-week supplement to their regular benefits.
But over the summer, 26 states opted to cut off unemployment aid early, with Republican leaders like West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) citing concerns about a labor shortage.
“West Virginians have access to thousands of jobs right now. We need everybody back to work,” Justice said in May.
But Dixon noted that, so far, there has not been much data to support the idea that cutting off unemployment benefits spurred employment rates. Early data from states that shut off pandemic-era unemployment benefits showed that those policies did not have much of an effect on employment rates, and may have led to a sharp decrease in consumer spending.
Dixon is concerned about what will happen to millions of households relying on unemployment aid.
“I think we’re headed for really dire straits for these families,” said Dixon. “I worry that we are making policy for the folks who have either already recovered or didn’t lose their jobs during this pandemic.”
White, the Detroit cosmetologist, feels frustrated by the politicians who have not extended benefits — or helped to make them more accessible.
While she worked part time, White received partial unemployment benefits — a crucial supplement to her part-time income that helped her pay utilities and avoid her worst fear: being without a home. She was shocked by how difficult it was to receive full benefits once she lost her job. She called up every political representative she could think of, just to follow up on her claim.
The loss of aid does not just affect low-wage workers.
Before the pandemic, Chenon Hussey says she would describe her family as a “thriving, amazing middle-class family.” Living in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Hussey owned a business as a public speaker, and her husband was a master welder. It was enough to help support nine kids, including a teenage daughter who is bipolar and has a developmental disorder.
But over the past 18 months, her husband has experienced three rounds of layoffs. Hussey lost all her speaking opportunities, and now works part time as a mobile crisis worker. She estimates they have lost $2,800 a month in income.
Both she and her husband have been eligible for unemployment benefits — a “lifeline” over the past 18 months. But the aid was nearing its end, and her family has had to make hard decisions: Hussey used to be able to afford an in-home caregiver for her daughter. This summer, the family made the “absolutely gut-wrenching” decision to place her in a group home, since they could no longer afford the care she needed.
Like White, Hussey has become an advocate for other unemployed people, co-founding the Wisconsin Unemployment Action Group. There are considerable barriers to accessing unemployment benefits in the state, which has denied aid to more than 200,000 claimants over the past year (nearly 600,000 were approved). Hussey is concerned that the nationwide racial disparities in receiving unemployment aid are also true of the Milwaukee metro area. (Officials at Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development did not respond to a request for comment.)
Despite school reopening for the first time since the pandemic, Hussey is anxious that things will only get worse. Throughout Milwaukee, students and school staff have tested positive for covid at rates not seen since December 2020.
Hussey feels like much of her work now is trying to reinforce a narrative that many people do not want to hear: that the pandemic is not over — “it’s not anywhere near over.”
“There are people, whether you like it or not, who cannot return to work either because their profession has not rebounded or they’re taking care of someone … or they themselves have a health issue," she said. “The recovery hasn’t happened for many people.”