As Kimberly Cole sat in the reception room at a doctor’s office in Longview on Wednesday afternoon, awaiting her son’s pain treatment, she wondered how she’d ever pay for his next visit to the doctor. She’d been able to afford the $122 co-pay this time, using money that had been budgeted for groceries, but she knew there would be more difficult choices in the coming weeks. The state unemployment benefits—$511 a week for Cole, which is roughly equivalent to what her base income had been when she was working full-time, but less than what she’d typically make after adding overtime pay—wouldn’t cover her myriad costs: rent, utilities, car payments, gas, groceries, and co-pays for the frequent treatments for her 28-year-old son’s end-stage renal disease. A supplemental $600 check per week from the federal government, courtesy of the CARES Act, had stopped coming in late July when the benefit expired. Cole figured she could last only a few more weeks before she’d have to rely on a local charity, like the United Way of Smith County, for food.
Cole has been grappling for months with financial instability and uncertainty. In March, her employer, an oilfield company at which she was a receptionist, eliminated opportunities for overtime pay. “That hurt bad,” she said. Then, in April, she was switched from full-time to working on a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule. Later that month, she was laid off. She filed for unemployment in late April.
As for many of the three million other Texans who have filed for unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic, the unemployment relief provided by the state was just enough to cover the most immediate necessities of the 51-year old Longview resident. She had come to rely on supplemental federal benefits of $600 per week to keep her head above water and bring her base income close to what it was when she was working—albeit without any of the vital health-care coverage or additional benefits she’d received through her employer. Then, in July, Congress did not reach an agreement to extend the supplemental benefit, leaving Cole more stretched thin than ever. “I don’t even have a cushion for a month’s rent,” Cole said.
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On August 8, President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum intended to extend the supplemental benefits. But the order did little to clarify things. The memorandum slashed the supplemental check from $600 a week to $400—which, Cole says, would still be a big help for her—but it’s unclear exactly where the money will come from. According to the memorandum, the federal government would cover three fourths of the cost, but the rest of the money and the means to distribute it is left up to individual states, where many unemployment agencies are already overwhelmed by a backlog of claims.
Cole didn’t hear anything from the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that distributes unemployment benefits, until she received an email Wednesday afternoon, four days after Trump signed the memorandum. “The Texas Workforce Commission is reviewing President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding the $400 supplemental unemployment benefit payment,” the agency wrote. “When we have additional information, we will update our systems and website.” But it could be weeks, if not months, before that money ever reaches someone like Cole, experts say.
Cole’s grown frustrated watching Congress lurch to a stalemate while negotiating a new stimulus package. “They’re getting their money, they’re getting rich off of us workers,” Cole said. “Then they want to sit there and twiddle their thumbs—both sides of the House, Republicans and Democrats.”
“They’re not doing what’s right for the American workers,” she added. “I honestly don’t think they care about the people.”
Some of Cole’s representatives, including U.S. representative Louie Gohmert and Senator Ted Cruz, opposed extending the $600 per week benefit. Cruz claimed it would incentivize people to stay at home rather than look for work.
“If you’re a single mom, if you’re struggling to feed your family, and suddenly the federal government is paying you a lot more money not to work than to work, then you love your kids, and you’re going to do what they’re paying you more for, because that’s providing for your family,” Cruz told the Washington Post last week. “That’s not in the long term helping you, and it’s certainly not helping the entire economy and everybody. We ought to be creating incentives, making it easier for people to go back to work and provide for their family. I think that’s what most Texans want. I think it’s what most Americans want.”
But researchers at Yale University studying the supplemental benefits in the CARES package found in a July paper “no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work,” after looking at weekly data on thousands of workers.
Cole has applied to more than thirty jobs, mostly administrative openings similar to her previous position, since losing hers—including opportunities offering much less than what she was making before. She says having to rely on the government has made her even more motivated to try to regain her financial independence. But again and again, she’s received roughly the same boilerplate response: “I’m sorry, you were not chosen.” She progressed to the interview stage only once. “It gets frustrating,” she said.
There’s still a chance Congress can come to an agreement on a new economic relief package, but it is unlikely that would come before Cole, and others like her, reach the breaking point when they must somehow seek help elsewhere. Negotiations appear to have completely stalled, and, during a press conference on Wednesday, Trump said that the passage of a bill to provide economic relief is “not going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Cole says she’s already begun gathering information on local food assistance programs for when she ultimately runs out of money for groceries. She’s never had to rely on those resources before. “In three or four weeks probably, I’ll need to do that,” Cole said. “Right now, with just the state unemployment, I have nothing left at the end of the month for anything.”