Miguel Sagastume has less than $2 until next week. When the enhanced unemployment payments of $600 each week expired on July 31st, his financial lifeline dried up. He now receives just $86.45 from the New York Department of Labor each week after taxes are removed from his unemployment checks.
The end of the Financial Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which has not been renewed as the Republican-controlled Senate remains deadlocked over another stimulus bill, has left Sagastume facing financial uncertainty—again. As he, like others, waited more than a month to receive his first unemployment payment this spring, the Queens resident plunged into despair.
“I sat in my house, cried, prayed,” said Sagastume, who has been using SNAP benefits to buy food for others who have less financial assistance. “I was really thinking of checking out, because I couldn't take it anymore.”
As negotiations over another government stimulus bill appear poised to spill into next week, New Yorkers are grappling with dwindling funds and food insecurity, just as they were at the beginning of the pandemic.
Though Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing courts to pause eviction proceedings on Wednesday, many New Yorkers told Gothamist they’re struggling to cope with financial insecurity and accompanying stress. Each reprieve from the state or city government only provides temporary assistance; without rent cancellation, next month’s rent and last month’s bills still need to be paid. Those able to keep up with expenses now worry about the future.
“I budget everything right now and don’t spend more than I absolutely need to,” said Amanda Brown, a yoga instructor and personal trainer. She said business at her Manhattan studio was “thriving” before the pandemic but her income has declined by about 75 percent. “With the FPUC [payments] ending, I feel like I am back to square one.”
The New York Department of Labor has paid 3.3 million people more than $34 billion since the pandemic began in March, according to a spokesperson. But with the end of enhanced unemployment assistance, New Yorkers can only receive a maximum of $504 per week, before taxes are removed.
The city’s unemployment rate hit 20.4 percent in June and few prospects for re-employment exist. Those asked to return to their jobs also face precarious financial situations. If they refuse to return, they’re ineligible to continue receiving unemployment benefits.
Jeremy Cole, who tends bar at a sushi restaurant in downtown Manhattan, said he’d been called back to work after his employer received money from the Paycheck Protection Program. Business has remained slow.
“I see only one or two customers and have to split what I make four or five ways, because the company has to bring everyone back on payroll. So we all just stand around for 13 hours a day,” said Cole, who lives with his girlfriend and their three teenage children in Downtown Brooklyn.
Cole said he works three days a week, but wages and the $108.75 he still receives weekly from the Department of Labor can’t compare to his prior earnings.
“At work, I make about $200 a week after taxes,” he said, far less less than the approximately $1,500 he brought home each week before the pandemic.
As the financial strain continues across New York, so do concerns about hunger.
“Overall over the course of this year, we’re projecting to see food insecurity rates increase by 38 percent for the general population and 49 percent for children” said Jerome Nathaniel, the Associate Director of Policy and Government Relations at City Harvest. Nathaniel stressed that the black and brown communities hit particularly hard by COVID-19 were more at risk for food insecurity.
“We certainly anticipate there’s going to be a greater need, and we’re already preparing for that with the expectation of delivering as much as 109 million pounds of food this fiscal year, through the end of June.”
While non-governmental organizations rush to provide vital assistance, New York politicians are hearing worries about the impact of the Senate's failure to pass a stimulus bill.
“As I’ve traveled throughout the district at different Congress on Your Corner events, the greatest degree of concern is both the ability to put food on the table, as well as the potential to be evicted once the moratorium is lifted,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries told Gothamist, placing blame for halted negotiations on Republican leadership and the White House. The House of Representatives in May passed a $3 trillion stimulus package, but the legislation has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Those dual concerns relate directly to kitchen table pocketbook issues, and that is why renewing the $600 per week emergency unemployment insurance benefit is the top priority of House Democrats.”
Though economists surveyed by the Washington Post agreed that Congress should continue supplemental unemployment benefits beyond July 31st, the Democrats and Republicans disagree about the amount the government should provide each week. Democrats have said that payments should remain at $600, while Republicans have countered with payments of $200.
President Donald Trump on Saturday signed a memorandum that in theory would extend enhanced unemployment benefits through the end of 2020 if Congress fails to pass a stimulus package, but the order was widely seen as legally dubious, because the president lacks the authority to circumvent Congress on federal spending.
If Republicans refuse to come to an agreement with Democrats to provide financial relief to jobless Americans, the national impact is expected to be severe. The Economic Policy Institute has cautioned that “cutting off or reducing the $600 will cause enormous hardship and further damage the economy.”
The Aspen Institute warned on Friday that 30 to 40 million people are at risk of eviction in the coming months without “robust and swift intervention.”
“There are so many people hurting now,” Sagastume told Gothamist, blaming Republicans for the deadlock. “And the government ain’t doing shit.”
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.