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With Pandemic Unemployment Benefits Expiring, Maine Families Face 'Very Desperate' Winter

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
In this Sept. 2, 2020, file photo, a shopper walks by one of several vacant retail spaces among the outlet shops in Freeport, Maine.

More than eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans are out of work, with many relying on federal emergency unemployment programs to stay afloat. But later this month, the programs could expire, potentially leaving tens of thousands of people in Maine with fewer benefits as many are already struggling to make ends meet.

For years, Heather Seavey has worked in pet stores, offering advice about nutrition to animal owners. But when COVID-19 hit Maine early this year, Seavey says she was forced to leave her job because of her asthma and an autoimmune disorder.

“So basically, getting COVID, especially with my asthma, would be a death sentence,” she says.

Initially, Seavey says her family survived OK. Her husband often worked at least 80 hours a week, and additional federal unemployment benefits of $600 per week made a big difference. But those ran out a few months ago. And Seavey says because of her health conditions — and the need to be at home to help her 11-year-old child, who has autism, with distance learning — she has been unable to return to work.

Seavey says her benefits are now less than $200 per week. She has begun selling blood plasma to afford food and other needs.

“It’s just trying to juggle everything,” she says. “And I’m going to go sell plasma tomorrow. That’s where I’m at. Like, I’ve got to go sell my blood again, so that I can get the kids through the weekend. And it’s hard. It’s hard.”

And it could get even harder later this month. That’s when emergency federal unemployment benefits are set to run out. The expanded benefits were created as part of the federal stimulus package passed in March. But without action from Congress, the Maine Department of Labor estimates that about 35,000 Mainers could lose benefits.

“Essentially, this is like throwing somebody out of an airplane with no parachute,” says Andy O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Maine AFL-CIO. The group has has been assisting laid-off workers with unemployment throughout the pandemic.

“People are very desperate,” he says. “They’re at risk of losing their homes and not knowing how they’re going to feed their family, much less give [gifts to] their kids at Christmas.”

O’Brien says Maine is heading into the winter months at a time when COVID-19 is spiking, and unemployment is on the rise.

“So it’s getting even harder and harder to find work,” he says. “And of course, Maine is kind of a seasonal economy. And so in the winter months, unemployment goes up anyway. It’s a real perfect storm, and something needs to be done.”

Several state officials have called on the federal government to extend the emergency unemployment programs. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Maine’s two U.S. senators, announced a plan to extend the benefits as part of a larger stimulus package. But that will need to make it through both chambers of Congress and be signed by the president.

In the meantime, laid-off workers are trying to piece together enough to simply stay afloat, even as they face financial uncertainty.

“We’re struggling. Struggling hard, but we’re trying to do what we can each today,” says Jamie Hills, who lives in Burnham with her two kids.

Hills says the expanded benefits programs helped her to keep the lights on and keep up with basic needs. But with benefits potentially running out, she’s already worried about how to afford gifts for her kids on Christmas Day.

“I’m just hoping that they’re happy with a couple of, just, literally, probably just a couple of small gifts. Because I can’t afford it,” she says.

Chris Hastedt, the public policy director for Maine Equal Justice, says the situation has highlighted the fact that the federal unemployment program is largely antiquated and was never meant to handle the modern economy, let alone a pandemic. Hastedt says beyond the immediate needs presented by the pandemic, Congress needs to rethink who’s eligible for unemployment and make it easier for laid-off workers to navigate the system.

“We need to use our learning to make the changes that are needed in the unemployment insurance program, so that it serves to more adequately protect and insure all workers in today’s economy,” Hastedt says.

Seavey says as more days pass without new federal funding for unemployment, she feels left behind at a time that she and her family need help the most.

“I’ve never not worked. And I was like, how does this happen, that the people here in this country that have worked the hardest and the longest, are the ones that are suffering so hard right now?” she says. “And it’s like, we’re invisible.”

The extended unemployment benefits are set to expire this month, on the day after Christmas.