West Virginians wait on word on whether additional pandemic unemployment will continue

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A “robust” relief plan was what those with a number of West Virginia advocacy organizations said they were hoping to see out of the next federal stimulus package that was in the works on Capitol Hill to address fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, talks were continuing about what could be a more than $1 trillion proposal, the latest federal help, as confirmed COVID-19 case numbers continued to climb in the U.S.

A draft bill from U.S. Senate Republicans was expected to be released on Thursday.

Early reports indicated the draft proposal would include additional aid for small businesses, a second round of stimulus payments for individuals and at least a partial extension of enhanced unemployment benefits, according to The New York Times.

One of the earliest relief packages came with the additional unemployment benefits, $600 more per week, for the millions of Americans who found themselves suddenly out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sean O’Leary

Without Congressional action, the additional benefits were scheduled to end with the close of July.

“Things would be much, much worse without it,” Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said of the effects of the extra unemployment.

O’Leary estimated more than 70,000 West Virginians stood to lose significant household funding with the expiration.

That number is conservative, though, because it covers only West Virginians on regular unemployment.

Not included were people on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the self-employed or gig workers who have only begun to qualify for unemployment because of special allowances in the pandemic.

All have been receiving $600 more per week.

Minus that, O’Leary said the average unemployment payment in West Virginia was $240.

“That’s going to have a huge effect on those families personally and that’s going to have a huge effect on the state’s economy as a whole and it could potentially be a very big blow,” he said.

“We’re talking about people who did nothing wrong, who lost their jobs through no fault of their own through circumstances way beyond their control and who otherwise would be needlessly suffering while we attempt to get this virus under control.”

In addition to supporting families, he said the money was supporting West Virginia’s economy.

Gary Zuckett

O’Leary credited the additional unemployment money and the initial round of federal stimulus checks with helping to keep consumer spending steady since the rebound that followed the big dropoff in March, putting current consumer spending, overall, only slightly below January numbers.

“It’s all going right into the economy and that’s what’s needed right now is that kind of stimulus to keep our local businesses going,” said Gary Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action.

Looking ahead, “People have rent that’s coming due. People have car payments. If they were making minimum wage, the unemployment that they’re getting from the state is not going to keep them whole.”

On Thursday, those with West Virginia Citizen Action, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and the West Virginia Association of Social Workers detailed their stimulus priorities on a conference call prior to the U.S. Senate draft release.

On their list, along with the extension of the additional unemployment payments, were measures to increase access to Medicaid, help state and local governments and protect workers, both physically and economically.

Sam Hickman

“I think we need to treat this like the first round of support we’re giving to families. It has to be robust and huge for families, communities and states,” said Sam Hickman, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia.

Zuckett agreed.

“We really have this chance to go bold and go big and make this package as robust as it can (be) so that it can meet the challenge that we’re in right now,” he said.

On Thursday morning, the U.S. Labor Department reported an increase in initial unemployment filings during the past week with more than 1.4 million people filing new claims.





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