State labor officials are warning that with Washington D.C. in deadlock over a new COVID-19 relief package, upward of 312,000 New Jerseyans could lose their unemployment benefits after a federal relief program is set to expire this month.
The two federal programs are set to expire on Dec. 26, unless Congress and the White House come to an agreement on a new COVID-19 relief package, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
One program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, provides jobless aid to 312,000 freelancers, independent contractors, part-time workers, and self-employed New Jerseyans, according to the state Labor Department.
It’s provided between $82 million and $85 million each week to New Jerseyans since mid-September, and a total of $2.4 billion since the first checks went out the week of May 2.
“It’s just a fact of the pandemic that people working in some industries are faring better than others because the pandemic is hurting some industries more than others. That’s true for independent contractors and traditional employees alike,” said Kim Kavin, co-founder of the New Jersey-based advocacy group Fight for Freelancers.
“That’s why we hope that whatever Congress does next helps everyone who is still facing challenges.”
A second program, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to an estimated 175,000 New Jerseyans, the Labor Department added. The state distributed $976 million since the first checks went out the week of June.
A smaller-scale state extension is run by the state, and according to Christopher Hayes, a labor historian at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, that means those New Jerseyans will not be completely in the lurch come the day after Christmas when the benefits expire.
“The pandemic is getting much worse and it’s going to continue to get worse. We’re back to a time of more shutdowns and near lockdowns,” he said.
All told, more than 1.8 million New Jerseyans have filed for unemployment in the last nine months, as the onset of COVID-19 triggered shutdowns of any businesses which might entail the crowding of people and potential hosts.
Casinos, sit-down dining, gyms, nail and hair salons, malls, theaters, non-essential and many other types of businesses had to stay closed during the spring, though they have been allowed to operate in some form since the start of summer.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been careful with re-upping restrictions, arguing for example that without CARES Act money, a mandated closure of indoor dining would be a death knell for many restaurants.
“This pandemic isn’t done with us yet,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in a Thursday statement. “As we see by the numbers of new and continuing claims, workers are still struggling under the weight of layoffs and reductions in hours, as well as the difficulty of finding a new job during COVID.
The added $600 in unemployment benefits expired over the summer – those made up $8.8 billion of the $19.5 billion in jobless benefit distributed by the state. Another $1.3 billion has gone out under a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Democrats have pushed for that amount to be extended, while Republicans in Washington want a lower amount of weekly federal benefits.
“When you cut off $70 million going into people’s pockets, you cut off $70 million going into” the economy, Hayes said.