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For Oregonians Facing Expiring Unemployment Benefits, Little Is Certain But Disruption

Amanda Frank
Amanda Frank relies on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits to supplement her limited income caring for children with special needs. She expects to need cash assistance if federal unemployment benefits expire, or payments lapse, at the end of December.

As Congress negotiates, Oregonians prepare for a gap in payment — or worse.

Getting unemployment benefits was hard for Amanda Frank. The prospect of losing them is too.

She applied for benefits in March when the pandemic dried up her work caring for children with special needs. But as months passed with no payment in sight, she thought of her toddler, swallowed her pride, and got cash assistance for families in need.

“That’s a real sting to my pride. I don’t like being on government assistance,” she said from her home in Albany. “I want to earn my own money.”

In August, Frank finally began receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, one of the federal unemployment programs authorized by the CARES Act. Now those benefits are set to expire the day after Christmas, and she expects to need the cash safety net again.

“Unfortunately, I think that might be where we’re at again for a month or two, until Congress decides what they’re gonna do to help us,” she said.

Oregon Employment Department says a gap in aid is almost inevitable

Even if the federal government extends its emergency unemployment programs by Dec. 18, the Oregon Employment Department says a gap in payment is almost inevitable.

How much of a gap depends on the complexity of any relief package, how quickly the administration provides guidance to the states, and how rapidly the Employment Department can update its troubled computer systems, train employees and test for bugs.

“It certainly would take several weeks, at a minimum, if it’s the most straightforward (version),” OED acting director David Gerstenfeld said. “And we really won’t have anything more specific until we can see what the law actually is that may come to be passed.”

About 70,000 Oregonians are poised to lose benefits by the end of the month, according to the agency. Two federal benefits programs are slated to end: PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides extended benefits. Thousands of people will also be affected by the downsizing of another extended benefits program, which is required to offer fewer weeks of help because Oregon’s unemployment rate has improved.

Even if the federal government extends unemployment benefits, the looming payment lapse is a blow to people already pushed to the brink financially.

“It’s gonna be awful. I don’t have a savings. I depleted everything at the beginning, just to survive,” said Ralene Heinz of Stayton, who collects PUA.

Heinz owns a small business called R & R Hood Cleaning and Pressure Washing, which cleans commercial kitchen exhaust systems. Her main clients are some of the very businesses most devastated by the pandemic.

“Restaurants, bars and retirement homes,” she said.

So now Heinz is scrambling to drum up business before her $205 weekly benefit evaporates — temporarily or completely. Those benefits at least kept the lights on.

“It is extremely frightening,” she said, “just because business is so slow.”

In the evenings, she spends hours emailing businesses that have contact information on their websites. She drives the state, walking into restaurants, trying to get their business. She works the phone, figuring out which county to try next. Then, exhausted, she goes to pound the pavement there.

Like Heinz and Frank, many people currently receiving PUA benefits have some work, but not enough to survive. Portland drummer Brian Foxworth can record music at home for clients. But his days of playing gigs seven nights a week are gone, for now.

“Nothing happening. No people can gather,” he said. “And that’s our job is to bring a crowd or we don’t get paid.”

Nathan Quigley
Better days. Brian Foxworth (drums) plays with Curtis Salgado's band in a 2012 opbmusic Live Session. Foxworth says Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits have been a lifesaver.

PUA benefits weren’t a lot, he said, but they helped pay bills and the mortgage for his family’s home. Now, as Foxworth waits to see what Congress does, he feels his hands are tied.

“Unless I go get another kind of job. And even with that, it’s still risky. I just got over COVID,” he said.

It was the sickest he’d ever felt. Foxworth said the coronavirus sent him to the hospital, laboring to breathe, and he doesn’t want to chance that again.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he said.

Rising food insecurity in Oregon and beyond as benefits set to expire

The expiration of federal unemployment benefits would come at a time of rising food insecurity in Oregon and around the country. State officials have warned that demand for safety net programs could surge.

As the benefits cutoff nears, Amanda Frank sometimes fears homelessness. But she also takes comfort in her faith.

“I’m a believer. I am a Christian,” she said. “And things have been a lot worse for us. We have been legitimately homeless in the past and living in a travel trailer with a baby.”

Faith, she said, is getting her through this.

Congress now has until Dec. 18 to pass a coronavirus relief bill that would extend federal benefits. Nationwide, about 12 million people are expected to lose unemployment benefits if it doesn’t.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.