The long road back for the longterm unemployed

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Becky Ansel marches at a protest demanding the extension of unemployment benefits for out of work musicians, stagehands and other out of work entertainment professionals. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Becky Ansel marches at a protest demanding the extension of unemployment benefits for out of work musicians, stagehands and other out of work entertainment professionals. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pennsylvania has one of the country’s highest unemployment rates during the pandemic. And while things have gotten a little better as some businesses have reopened, people in industries that rely on interacting in person — many of whom have spent decades building their careers — don’t know when their jobs will re-materialize.

Keystone Crossroads’ Laura Benshoff spoke to workers about why that wait can be particularly painful, thanks to dwindling unemployment benefits, and the kind of damage longterm unemployment can cause a career.

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview highlights

On why expanded federal unemployment benefits expired

[The CARES Act] was time-limited from the beginning, and I think now we’re at a different place in the pandemic. Things don’t feel immediate and urgent in the way that they did in March, but there’s still a lot of people suffering. And so what the right response to that should be has been a big matter of debate, and there just hasn’t been an agreement [in Congress] on what that relief should look like. You have different attitudes about spending between the two major political parties in the United States. You have different attitudes about what the right way to provide relief is. Should relief be targeted more towards businesses, or should it be targeted more towards workers, or both? And I think there were concerns that [$600 a week] was just too high, it was too generous. So there is disagreement between the White House and House Democrats about how much that disbursement should be. I think there’s an agreement that something should be done. But the dollar amount felt like it was just a hotly debated number.

On the difficulty of finding ‘fallback jobs’

The alternatives that exist are not necessarily desirable ones and they’re not necessarily ones that pay anywhere close to what people were making before. For example, you could drive for Uber and Lyft. That’s still happening. Early in the pandemic, there were some hiring sprees at warehouse fulfillment centers because so many people are ordering things online. Now that requires people with certain kinds of stamina and ability and schedules that not everyone has. And I talked to folks who had tried to get work in I would say pretty normal fallback jobs. Like, “Oh, you know, I’m in between things. Maybe I can pick up a waitressing gig or maybe I can pick up, you know, a fast food job or something.” Those fallback jobs are now in higher demand, too. So [people looking for jobs] weren’t necessarily finding stopgaps and that extra money from the federal government in many cases was the thing keeping them current on their bills.

On what could be done to help the longterm unemployed

We do know from the last [recession] that people who are unemployed longterm did have a harder time reentering the workforce and now, longterm is six months or more, and we’re hitting that point in this pandemic, so there’s a lot of people who will have been unemployed for long stretches of time and may have trouble rejoining the workforce even when things start to look normal again. And some of the economists I spoke to indicated that a lot of that could also just come down to the federal response. They talked about the need for relief, so helping people keep their heads above water now, and also stimulus, this idea that people are going to need some confidence boost when there is a vaccine or when here is a lot more mitigation in place, [when] people can feel like they can do the things they were doing before safely. They might still need some economic stimulus from the government to be ready to invest again, to be ready to create jobs again.

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