Four years ago, Danielle Piscatelli moved to Colorado to pursue a new career as an outdoor guide and educator.
She relies on seasonal contract work through multiple organizations, and depends on the money she makes between March and November to get through the slower winter season.
Piscatelli had work already penciled in throughout the spring and summer to supplement the financial reserves she used over winter. Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened.
“Just as I was starting to ramp up some of these funds, all of a sudden quarantine hit and everything shut down,” she says.
She’s among more than 51 million Americans who have filed for state unemployment insurance—supplemented by an additional $600 per week in federal benefits—since the COVID-19 pandemic began. For workers like Piscatelli, that additional $600 per week provided by the CARES Act has been a lifeline.
“The reality is, I wouldn’t have survived the last three months without the money,” Piscatelli, who is in her 40s, says.
Those extra funds are set to expire at the end of July, and Congress has been negotiating for months on whether to approve new benefits or extend the current ones, without any agreement. As the deadline approaches, lawmakers have begun working toward a possible interim solution, including one that would drastically cut the benefit to $100 a week, until broader stimulus legislation is enacted. But long-term solutions are still up in the air, leaving many recipients wondering how they will cope.
More than half, or 54%, of Americans who live in households receiving the additional $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits have no financial plan if the benefit ends, according to the latest survey from NextAdvisor.
A Financial Lifeline
Unemployment in the United States has reached historic highs amid the coronavirus-related recession.
The unemployment rate climbed from 3.5% in February to 4.4% as the outbreak began in March, then skyrocketed to 14.7% in April. Since then, it’s fallen at a steady rate—13.3% in May, 11.1% in June—but there are still significantly more Americans unemployed than before the pandemic.
In an initial response to the crisis, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to provide relief for workers and businesses. As part of the over $2 trillion relief package, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program provided an additional $600 per week to the unemployment benefits that eligible individuals could receive from their state.
Unsurprisingly, 97% of Americans who have received the additional CARES Act money say the benefit has been helpful, with 81% describing it as “very helpful.”
“Enhanced unemployment benefits have allowed workers and families to continue paying their bills, buying goods and services, and caring for their families,” says Kali Grant, a senior economic analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality’s Economic Security & Opportunity Initiative.
If you are getting the federal government’s extra unemployment benefit of $600 a week, that money may be running out. Take action now to prepare for that possibility: revisit your budget and expenses, and plan for different possible scenarios.
Covering the Essentials
Andre Boyer, 35, an actor and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, had just begun work on a new series when production halted in early March as studios shut down. He applied for unemployment a week later.
Boyer lives with his girlfriend, who has maintained employment throughout the pandemic, in the home he purchased three years ago. Thanks to her stable income, they’ve directed the majority of Boyer’s unemployment money toward mortgage payments and other basic expenses.
The majority of survey respondents receiving unemployment benefits, 68%, say they put the cash boost toward paying for basic necessities, such as their rent or mortgage, utilities, and grocery bills. Others are using the additional cash for other financial goals: 13% have put the money toward savings, 8% have paid down debt, and 5% have used it for investments.
“I was still able to put away $100 here and there for savings, have a little extra cash for groceries, and pay off a lot of the credit card debt I had beforehand,” he says. “So hopefully I won’t be too much in the red when we get out of this.”
Just 6% of respondents admit to spending the money on non-essentials.
For Boyer, unnecessary spending is the last thing on his mind. The money covers basic necessities, he says: “That’s really it. I’m not out there doing frivolous things with it because you just never know when income is going to come next, so I try to be smart.”
Since receiving unemployment benefits following the coronavirus outbreak, what have you primarily spent the money on?
Note: Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding.
Deadline: What Happens Now?
The additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits is slated to expire on or before July 31, depending on the day each state sends its weekly payments. Congress hasn’t enacted a new plan or an extension but as pressure mounts ahead of the deadline, lawmakers are actively seeking some form of agreement—whether that’s a temporary fix or more expansive legislation.
“If this deadline passes without Congressional action, we risk further hurting these workers and their families, and prolonging the economic impacts for all of us,” Grant says.
Critics of the expanded benefit argue it disincentivizes recipients from returning to the workforce, especially when their regular income is less than they’re earning through unemployment. But recent research suggests those collecting unemployment are more inclined to search for work than those who have exhausted their benefits.
And economists warn that ending the benefit in July could lead to reduced consumer spending and an approaching eviction cliff for renters, which could stall economic recovery.
“Drastically cutting incomes for millions of people—who will then have less to spend at grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses—will catalyze a second wave of layoffs and spell more economic hardship for millions of families,” Grant predicts.
For many unemployed Americans, the future is no clearer today than it was in March.
Future Unemployment Insurance
Even if the enhanced benefit of $600 per week in federal aid expires at the end of July, you will still be able to collect unemployment insurance for up to 39 weeks.
Most states generally provide up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance (with exceptions), but 13 weeks of additional Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) is available in every state. After that, you may also be eligible for further assistance under the Extended Benefits Program, which is based on each state’s unemployment levels.
Further unemployment aid may also be part of a second stimulus bill from the federal government, but no agreements have been made yet by lawmakers in Congress. Meanwhile, many state unemployment agencies have been overwhelmed by the rush of new claims in recent months, leading to significant delays in processing and payments for people.
Over the first quarter of 2020, weekly unemployment benefits (not including the extra CARES Act money) averaged $382 nationwide, according to the Department of Labor. But the amount you may qualify for varies greatly based on your location and individual situation. State unemployment benefits are typically based on a percentage of your lost income and are subject to caps and time limits set by the state. For example, the weekly maximum benefit in Tennessee is just $275, while New Jersey benefits can reach up to $713 weekly.
Check with your individual state’s labor department for specific details.
Changing Financial Priorities
For the majority (65%) of unemployment recipients, not being able to fulfill basic needs and make payments is the biggest concern when the weekly $600 benefit expires. Others are worried about not being able to save as much (16%) and not being able to pay off debts (11%).
What is your biggest financial concern following the end of extended unemployment benefits? Americans are most concerned about not being able to do each of the following:
Note: Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding.
“With so much uncertainty right now, a lot of people are putting their long-term savings on hold and saving for the short term,” says Lauryn Williams, CFP, financial planner and founder of Worth Winning, a virtual financial planning firm based in Dallas.
As she anticipates more work opportunities for her outdoor business over the next few weeks, Piscatelli has begun to tentatively plan, with a new focus on the near future.
“Prior to quarantine and the emergence of the virus, I was focused on paying off debt and moving,” Piscatelli says. “Now, my financial goals are ensuring I’ll have the money and work to pay my expenses for the next six months.”
How to Prepare
Taking action is the most important thing you can do now, Williams says: “Prepare for another level of uncertainty.”
Start thinking about how you can best make ends meet when the money coming in is not the same. Revisit your budget and reconsider expenses that can be reduced. Focus on large, fixed expenses such as rent or mortgage and auto payments; consider taking on a roommate or asking your landlord and lenders for assistance.
Look into options you have to bring in any additional income, even outside your career field. If you’re expecting to return to your previous job, follow up with your employer about an estimated timeline.
“Begin planning based on different scenarios for the length of time that you will be unemployed, with or without unemployment income,” says Robert Eddy, a financial planner for Prudential based in Lafayette, Louisiana. “The sooner you do it and think ahead, you’ll have a little bit more peace of mind about how you can handle it.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Reach out to organizations, community services, and friends and family. Focus on the factors that are within your control, Eddy says.
Here are just a few options to consider:
- Contact your credit card companies, mortgage and auto loan lenders, landlord, utility companies, and any other regular expenses to ask about hardship assistance or forbearance options.
- Look for state and local nonprofits, community assistance programs, and individual organizers offering help for those facing hardship.
- Paycheck Protection Program loans (with forgiveness provisions) for small business, independent contractors, and self-employed workers, with open applications until Aug. 8.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other state and local food assistance programs.
- Look into health coverage available through your state’s marketplace, Medicaid, or COBRA.
- Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credits you may be eligible for.
- Retirement fund distributions or loans available penalty-free under the CARES Act.
- See this list for a more comprehensive view of assistance offered by federal agencies.
Moving Into Uncertainty
Ahead of the expected end of additional unemployment benefits they’ve relied on over the past months, Boyer and Piscatelli are both anxious to see what the future holds.
“I want to jump back into the workforce no matter what it is; I’m trying to be as humble as possible,” Boyer says. “I’m not above washing dishes. Or I’ll transition to the corporate side of things. It is what it is at this point when it comes to finding jobs.”
As her calendar begins to pick up again, Piscatelli says going back to work is important to her, but she’s fearful for both her health and the volatile process of reopening.
“I have this underlying fear, but I’m trying really hard to focus on how to protect myself, how to protect others and work as much as I can. It’s a very weird place to be.”
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2440 adults, of whom 306 have received or in households where someone has received enhanced unemployment benefits. Fieldwork was undertaken between July 13-15, 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).