Some don’t know what they will do when federal unemployment benefits end on September 4th

With New Mexico’s state unemployment benefits ending September 4, Albuquerque resident Rhiannon Chavez-Ross fears she could lose her home.

A single mother with two children, Chavez-Ross lost her parties and events business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She said she received a paycheck protection program loan of less than $1,000 for her business last year and has been on unemployment benefits since the virus first spread. But she said she needs to supplement her unemployment benefits with money from her savings. Now that benefits are ending and her savings are depleted, she said she doesn’t know what she will do.

“My stress levels are through the roof,” she said NM Political Report.

Chavez-Ross is among 29,104 New Mexicans who will lose their state unemployment benefits on Sept. 4 and will have no other available unemployment benefits, said Felipe Guervara, a workers’ rights attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

He said if neither the state nor the federal government tries to mitigate the loss of unemployment benefits, more people in New Mexico could be homeless, more people could be dependent on food banks, as well as other state benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) . Some families might struggle to stay together, he said.

“They may have to separate at times so the children can stay in places where there can be food and a roof. It will cause a lot of suffering,” Guervara said.

James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said that when federal unemployment ends, children and women of color are likely to suffer the most.

“Some of the data that we’ve seen already suggested that children of color are already suffering from things like food insecurity,” he said. “I think the extent to which people are being affected by the pandemic is clearly not equal across genders, not equal across income spectrums, not equal across race or ethnicity. Because of this, we know that women of color, and women in general, have suffered more harm.”

The state is currently “cashless,” Jimenez said. He wants some of that money to continue helping people in the state who are still unemployed.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in an email reply that the state is “boosting its job placement services” through the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

She said the DWS job search programs “help New Mexicans safely return to work.”

But Guervara said expecting people to get back to work isn’t really that easy and a “false expectation”.

There are currently four types of federal unemployment assistance. One, called the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), provided an additional $300 a week this year and another $600 a week for part of last year to supplement federal unemployment compensation. State unemployment compensation varies from state to state and depends in part on the worker’s previous income, but in New Mexico, Guervara said state unemployment can be as high as $169 a week.

“That’s a ridiculous amount,” he said.

Regular state unemployment also lasts 26 weeks, or about 6.5 months, Guervara said. For those who ran out of that relief about a year ago, the federal government provided a second program called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC and PEUC-A) that expanded these state unemployment benefits.

A third program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), has provided unemployment to people like Chavez-Ross who, because of the nature of their jobs, might not have qualified for regular state unemployment.

For Chavez-Ross, it was because she owned her own business. The program also helps people who are gig economy workers, independent contractors and others who didn’t have normal 9 to 5 jobs before the pandemic started.

The fourth federal unemployment program is called Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which provides an additional $100 per week in additional unemployment benefits for workers who may have had multiple outside jobs and therefore may not have qualified for regular state unemployment insurance.

Ross-Chavez said she’s applied for 50 to 55 positions in the past three weeks alone, and because she hasn’t had a 9-to-5 job in several years, she worries employers will disregard her application.

“I try to be optimistic and tell myself that I have 13 years of office experience. But I’m discouraged after submitting so many applications and hearing nothing,” she said.

She said she got an interview but was told she was overqualified for the position.

Chavez-Ross said she’s applying for out-of-state jobs and, as a last resort, may have to start selling her business inventory to try to survive.

Jimenez said there could be a variety of reasons workers might not find employment during the ongoing pandemic. He said he was “skeptical” of the argument that there are many jobs available.

He cited safety concerns during the pandemic, childcare issues and the fact that many retail and restaurant jobs don’t provide a living wage as reasons why those jobs may go unfilled.

“I’m not sure some employers fully appreciate the difficult lives people are leading right now,” Jimenez said.

Although Chavez-Ross has no family to help her through this difficult time, she knows she is not alone. She runs a Facebook group for people struggling with unemployment. She said she has 3,000 members.

Chavez-Ross said she’s starting to apply for jobs that are “outside her area” but that she has a weak immune system so “COVID always worries me.”

Chavez-Ross said she’d like to see more help for small business owners like her.

“Not all of us can just reopen, some of us are still in debt. It’s not easy to close for a year and pick up where you left off. There are still some people who need help out there,” she said.

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