COVID-19 and the safety net: Is it safe enough? 


May 21, 2020

Editor’s note: The Coalition on Human Needs recently asked our online supporters how coronavirus has affected their families. Hundreds wrote in to share their stories. This is one of a continuing series of stories about the personal effects of the pandemic – and what must be done to help people in need. If you have a coronavirus story you would like to share, please click here.  

Luis of Clearwater, Florida, was furloughed from his job on March 18. He applied for unemployment, but after two months, still had not heard back from the state and had not received a cent in compensation. 

He is not alone. 

Nationwide, millions of Americans have been unsuccessful in their efforts to access unemployment; some have not even managed to apply due to factors including crashed web sites, busy signals, and lack of adequate staffing in unemployment offices. 

Reflecting on the pandemic, is America’s safety net safe enough?

In Florida alone, 372,700 people managed to file an unemployment claim in March, despite the state’s clunky, dysfunctional unemployment system. But that same month, the state managed to pay out only 2.4 percent of those claims, the nation’s second-worst record. Statewide, nearly a quarter of a million people have been denied assistance that advocates say they should be receiving. 

Lisa and her partner, who live in Cromwell, Connecticut, lost their jobs some time back and decided to start again, cleaning houses and pet-sitting. “In late February, our clients dropped our services and we found ourselves with NO income,” Lisa writes. We both filed for unemployment and were denied because we couldn’t report our income. We did not make enough to file taxes in the past few years. Neither of us received the $1,200 stimulus check either, although we went to the web site and applied for it. 

“We have no savings left, and I don’t know where our next meal is coming from. It is so wrong that because we don’t have ‘normal’ jobs at this stage in our lives, that we can’t receive any help from the government, both federal and state! It was implied, and announced that gig workers would qualify for unemployment and the stimulus check! Where is our money? What, big corporations get bailouts of millions, and we get nothing? I have family members who are fortunate enough to still be working, and they got stimulus checks. Where is my money?” 

Howard of Olalla, Hawaii – a state whose primary industry, tourism, has been decimated by the pandemic – lost his full-time job as a singer/songwriter, record producer and multi-instrumentalist. “I have three children. I have not been able to do any kind of work for over two months. The state of Hawaii has not given any unemployment to any of us gig economy workers despite the federal funds it has received. I have completely run out of any small amount of money I was ever able to put aside.” 

Howard said his expenses approach $5,000 a month – not surprising in the state ranked as the most expensive to live in in the entire U.S. ‘Rent is $3,000, then there are all the utility bills, food, and education costs,” he says. “I am feeling utterly hopeless. I have applied for every possible grant available. Please tell the world that Hawaii is starving out its over 40 percent gig economy employees. Locals are leaving in droves.” 

All of this leads to an important question: Is America’s safety net safe enough? The answer would appear to be no – too many people are slipping through the net, people such as Luis, Lisa, and Howard. And this is likely to continue — both the Congressional Budget Office and leading economists warn that historically high unemployment levels will be with us through 2021.

It doesn’t have to be this way, which is why CHN is urging the Senate to follow in the House’s footsteps and take action to ameliorate the economic catastrophe. (You can tell your senators to act by clicking here.)

Along with the stories of people slipping through the cracks, CHN also received powerful testimony of the importance of the programs that do exist and the role they play – government plays – in keeping food on the table and a roof over one’s head. 

Elizabeth of Bellvue, Iowa says her partner was laid off from his job bartending. “Thankfully, stimulus money and his unemployment have helped us out a lot,” she says. “We do not visit the local pantry, because we are able to budget meals very carefully. Our community has a fairly high number of elderly and disabled; we feel that these citizens are in need of the pantry items more than we need them….We don’t mind being frugal and making sacrifices to do our part. There are many others suffering far more than our family.” 

Jim of Bethesda, Maryland retired after working for 50 years – he paid into Social Security and the Civil Service Retirement System and gets deposits to his checking account every month. “The social safety net put into place in the Depression is like gold now,” he says. “They still work and I’m in good shape. My Medicare (I also paid into) is working fine – I’m covered. The Republicans and the White House are trying to take these away from me. I paid in, I should get benefits back.” 

There also exists a another category of people who shared their stories with CHN – people who say they are okay for now, but still worry about the future. 

Kathryn of San Jose, California runs a small art business, and right now there are no sales. “I am lucky compared to many people in my city,” she says. “I have SSDI to pay my basic expenses so I don’t have to worry about eviction when our local moratorium expires. I applied for (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) as soon as it opened for self-employed people and eventually I’ll get the benefit card; yet friends say they can’t access the system or it’s confusing and won’t accept their responses.” 

Kathryn says she does worry about her business going into debt. “My retailers are closed, online sales have stopped, and my big corporate buyers won’t be holding events that need custom gifts,” she says. “If I declare bankruptcy, I may disqualify myself from low-income housing when we recertify. I can’t write a reasonable business plan when nobody knows what the ‘new normal’ will be after the pandemic. I try to take care of myself and speak out on behalf of groups with less access.” 

In a similar vein, Paul of Reno, Nevada says his family is doing okay – for now. “So far we are managing, since we were retired before the outbreak and living modestly on our Social Security, my state retirement, and Jeanette’s federal retirement,” he says. “Our main worry is for her handicapped son, who had difficulty getting by before on his $740 monthly SSI, supplemented by food stamps. As long as rents remain stable (which they are not), we have enough, barring emergencies and unexpected expenses. If I get sick, I have the Veterans’ Administration. I only wish all Americans had enough of a floor below them, as we do so far.” 

unemployment insurance