Expanded federal unemployment benefits are set to expire this weekend. Millions of Americans — including nearly 350,000 Illinoisans — are set to lose those extra benefits.
Here are five things you need to know.
1. What benefits are expiring?
In March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — also known as the CARES Act — established a handful of new federal unemployment aid programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits for those who are not typically eligible for unemployment aid, such as gig workers or the self-employed; Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which extends aid to people after they have exhausted benefits from the state; Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), weekly cash boosts to help Americans recover lost wages; and Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which provided an additional weekly $100 payment to eligible claimants who earned at least $5,000 in self-employment income in addition to wages earned with an employer.
2. Who is affected in Illinois?
Close to 350,000 Illinois residents will see their federal unemployment benefits come to an end Saturday, according to Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He said about 235,000 Illinoisans receive PEUC, and another 110,000 or so get PUA help.
The expiration of the federal program does not impact traditional unemployment benefits from the state, according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Economic Security (IDES).
In Cook County, service workers and frontline employees will be most affected by the benefits cutoff, according to Karin Norington-Reaves, chief executive officer of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. She said the number of unemployment insurance (UI) claimants has tapered off since the start of the pandemic, from about 1.75 million to hundreds of thousands, “but it’s still far higher than what the normal rate of unemployment insurance benefits would be be at this point of any given year.”
Both she and Stettner said Black workers are disproportionately affected by the benefits cutoff. WBEZ reported earlier this year that in Chicago, the top five ZIP codes for unemployment benefits claims last year were in majority-Black communities. Many workers faced technical and logistical barriers in filing for benefits in the first place, which means they may have missed out on the added federal benefits, as well.
3. The job market has changed dramatically since the pandemic’s start.
Federal data shows that there are about 5.4 million fewer jobs now than there were before the pandemic. In Cook County, there has been a slow uptick in the leisure and hospitality industries, Norington-Reaves said, adding there are many jobs in transportation, distribution, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare.
However, Illinois, like the rest of the country, has also seen what some call “The Great Resignation,” in which workers have left their jobs or changed careers. A number of sectors are reporting workforce shortages.
Norington-Reaves said the exodus of workers is partially due to people re-evaluating their lives amid a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
“As you look at the number of deaths that we’ve seen across the country, I think anytime that people are faced with that, there is this questioning about how you want to spend the rest of your life,” she said. “If you were somebody who was working two and three jobs just to get by, and you’re still decimated by this pandemic, you really have to think, ‘Is this all there is? Can I do this in a different way? Is there another opportunity?’ ”
4. Studies show little impact of jobless benefits on re-employment.
Some companies, and even elected officials, are blaming the worker shortage on unemployment benefits, suggesting that workers have opted to stay home and collect unemployment rather than return to work. But Stettner says the data shows otherwise. He said economic studies have shown little meaningful impact of the extra cash on employment numbers throughout the country. “Nor have we seen a big gain [of employment] states like Iowa or Missouri that have cut off the benefits early,” Stettner said. “Their retail and restaurant business, they’re still struggling to find workers, so it seems like there’s more going on right now than the unemployment benefits.”
Norington-Reaves said the idea that unemployment benefits discourage work is also “loaded with bias. It harkens back to the ‘welfare queen’ trope, and I think it is disrespectful to the challenges that people have endured in order to get through this pandemic.” She noted that many who have stepped back from work have been women who had to leave their jobs to be caregivers to both children and to elderly parents stricken with illness. “These benefits are not huge amounts of money,” Norington-Reaves added. “We’re not talking about thousands of dollars a month. … So I take great issue with that whole posture, that people are just staying out of the workforce in order to draw down what really amounts to subsistence-level income.”
Stettner said the surging delta variant has dampened employment figures, especially in cities like Chicago.
“People are not coming downtown to the offices as much as they were supposed to by Labor Day, and that has an impact,” he said. Jobs downtown are easier for people to get to from other parts of the city, Stettner added, versus trekking it to the suburbs via several modes of sparse public transportation.
Stettner said while he believes the cutoff of the benefits is premature, there’s little political will in Congress to extend them after directing nearly $100 billion toward the cause so far. “They don’t think there’s public support for this any longer. … They want to work on other things.”
5. There are some resources available for those who need assistance.
Norington-Reaves says the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership is here to help. She touts the nearly 15,000 job openings her organization has received from employers, as well as on-the-job training that provides stipends as people learn new skills. The Partnership is also partnering with the city, county and state to do targeted events, virtual job fairs and sector-driven hiring initiatives.
IDES encourages Illinois residents to seek help from the state through agencies like the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Housing Development Authority, which administer programs like food assistance (SNAP, WIC) and rental assistance.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.