WRIC, JACKIE DEFUSCO
As an expiration date for two key unemployment programs inches closer, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is coming out with a plan to extend benefits into next year, restore the $300 weekly bonus and maintain expanded eligibility for traditionally excluded groups.
According to Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) office, more than 300,000 Virginians are currently relying on either Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)–two programs authorized by the CARES Act that are set to expire on December 26th. If Congress doesn’t pass another relief package ahead of that deadline, those claimants will be left without a safety net as coronavirus restrictions continue to limit job prospects.
“It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge,” Warner said in a press conference announcing the bipartisan framework on Tuesday.
The stakes of failing to pass a new stimulus bill are even higher in Virginia as the state recently fell out of eligibility for Extended Benefits (EB), abruptly impacting about 20,000 people relying on the federal program. The change was automatically triggered when the commonwealth’s unemployment rate fell below 5 percent, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
EB would’ve been the next step for Sarah Zuidema, a 30 year-old claimant living in Alexandria, Va.
Zuidema has already exhausted her traditional benefits and is currently in the final weeks of the PEUC program. Since being laid off in April from a position that relies on live entertainment, she has been looking for remote working opportunities to protect her high-risk parents (who she currently lives with). Zuidema says she has submitted more than 100 job applications with no luck.
Now–with her savings and retirement fund depleted–she’s bracing to lose her unemployment benefits at the end of December too. She has little hope that Congress will pull through.
“I did everything I was told to do and I lost everything. I was in a job that I loved. I was moving up. I had actually just got that position six months prior and it’s all gone now,” Zuidema said in tears when asked about her message to lawmakers. “You’re playing with people’s lives. People are about to lose everything.”
After months of inaction, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress believe they have reached a breakthrough. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, is among them.
Earlier this year, Spanberger bucked her party when House Democrats passed a coronavirus relief package dubbed the HEROES Act and blamed Senate Republicans for refusing to compromise.
“I voted against that bill because it was so much broader than just COVID-19 relief. It was not negotiated to any degree and we knew that it never had a chance,” Spanberger told 8News in an interview on Tuesday.
Spanberger said the newly released $908 billion framework is much more likely to pass, though there will undoubtedly be more work to do.
“I don’t think anyone is one hundred percent happy with it but, at the end of the day, it will deliver relief to people and communities and small businesses that need it most and that has been the priority,” Spanberger said.
Included in the vast proposal is an extension of unemployment benefits through April 1, 2021, according to Spanberger.
If passed she said the framework would also continue expanded eligibility for groups who can’t usually collect unemployment, like gig workers and the self-employed.
Additionally, Spanberger said the package would restore the $300 weekly federal supplement to state unemployment benefits–down from the $600 weekly bonus claimants initially received at the start of the pandemic. After that expired in July, President Donald Trump signed an executive order providing additional weekly payments, which were largely distributed to Virginians in a lump sum in October after facing delays at the state level.
Lawmakers representing Virginia who didn’t directly participate in the bipartisan framework are echoing Spanberger’s urgency in finding a compromise.
Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-D5), a Republican who was recently ousted in a re-elected bid, appeared to shift to the center on the issue of unemployment benefits. He expressed support for the $300 weekly supplement in an interview on Tuesday, after saying over summer that he would rather see federal assistance zeroed out.
“We gotta put people over politics and I think that this is the time. We have been failing the people with this bickering that we have been having over the past few months,” Riggleman said.
Riggleman said he’s still reviewing the latest relief package but he’s inclined to support it, as long as it includes sufficient liability protections for businesses.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he’s encouraged by the compromise, though he’s keeping a close eye on aid for state and local governments.
“I wish the package was larger, I’ll be blunt,” Kaine said. “The amounts of aid in many of those categories are not what I think the nation needs right now but it’s certainly better than going home for a recess without providing relief.”