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Business and Economy

Expanded Unemployment Benefits Are Set To Expire Monday. Here's What That Means For Mainers

Launched during the Great Depression, the unemployment insurance system has seen unprecedented strain during the coronavirus crisis.
Launched during the Great Depression, the unemployment insurance system has seen unprecedented strain during the coronavirus crisis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, millions of people lost their income, or were forced to leave their jobs, in the face of school and business closures. In response, the federal government expanded unemployment insurance: freelancers and self-employed people became eligible. And the federal government provided them a lot more money: up to $600 extra per week, though that fell to $300 extra over the past few months.

Beginning on Monday, though, those extra benefits are expiring, potentially affecting thousands of people here in Maine. For more on just what that will mean here in our state, All Things Considered Host Robbie Feinberg spoke to Frank D’Allesandro, who’s the litigation and policy director at Maine Equal Justice.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: So these expanded benefits are set to expire on Monday, just how large of an impact is that going to have here in Maine?

Frank D’Allesandro: So even though the state of emergency has ended, we continue to see clients who become unemployed due to COVID-related reasons. We just received a case in which someone who recently became employed was no longer able to work, because her son had to be quarantined because their daycare had tested positive for COVID. After this week, this person will no longer be eligible to receive unemployment benefits because of the end of the federal unemployment benefit program. And we're concerned that we will continue to see these cases, because COVID infections continue to exist and are actually rising in some places. And the vaccine continues to be unavailable for children. You know, the pandemic has had some pretty significant impacts on our economy. And those are still being felt. And so the economy has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. And so that negative economic impact is still going to impact people's ability to get work.

Over the past few months. One of the big arguments that we've really heard from businesses about this is that these benefits were keeping a lot of people from taking open jobs. You know, what, what's your perspective on that? Do you think that this will lead more people to rejoin the workforce at all?

It hasn't been our experience that people are not getting back into the workforce, due to overly generous unemployment benefits. And it has been our experience, continuing up till now is that people can continue, especially low-income Mainers, continue to experience the impact of COVID and the pandemic, to childcare and other things that are preventing them from reentering the workforce or if they do re enter the workforce, prevent them from continuing to get childcare and other services they need in order to be employed.

So obviously, these benefits are expiring. But groups like yours have mentioned some benefits that people can still turn to - there's still the rental assistance program being administered by the state, as well as the $300 federal child tax credit that was passed earlier this year. Is there anything else that people can turn to right now for assistance?

There were also some changes to this state unemployment law. So as a result of some changes in state law that are going to go into effect in October, an individual who's not able to work because they lost childcare could be available to receive unemployment benefits if they're able and available to work, and have enough work orders.

Yeah, and those are state unemployment benefits. So would those be the same amount as what they're getting right now in federal unemployment benefits?

Absolutely not, because the federal unemployment benefits come with the extra $300 a week, and that's not part of the state program.

So this expansion of unemployment over the past 18 months has been this kind of unprecedented experience in terms of expanding access and benefits to people. Overall, what lessons do you think we can learn from these changes and what our unemployment system should look like going forward?

Often, there are negative connotations around government benefits, including sometimes unemployment. What I think we can say is, as result of this, is that people, first of all, these expanded unemployment benefits were critical in keeping people afloat during the pandemic, and really played a critical role in help managing COVID outbreaks. In addition, what we can say is that this money by was not misspent by people. This money was used to pay for basic necessities, which helped keep the economy going and helped these individuals who received the benefit to keep their head above water in what was, you know, this incredibly difficult crisis that the country and the state of Maine faced.