Returning to work is not easy for some who have lost their jobs due to COVID

Karen Miller wants to work.

Ideally, the 65-year-old would go back to her old job scanning government documents for Data Dimensions in Janesville, Wisconsin. But she can’t. The company fired her in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit, and she then cut more than 100 employees after losing a contract.

As the state requires, Miller has conducted at least four weekly “job search actions” since May to continue receiving the state’s maximum for unemployment benefits: $ 370 per week plus all the federal government sets up. She would seek employment regardless of regulations, she says, although heart disease limits her options.

But she said entering her criteria into the job search only returns listings of jobs that she cannot perform, including physically demanding warehouse and delivery jobs and positions for occupations. requiring licenses that it lacks.

The research yielded some leads and interviews, but no jobs. She suspects her age has something to do with it.

In the first months of the pandemic, Wisconsin lawmakers largely championed the cause of suddenly jobless workers like Miller – even as Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for an unemployment insurance system that drowned under a flood of complaints.

While the Workforce Development Department struggled to process claims last year, Miller waited 11 weeks for his first unemployment check. This forced her to spend her savings and dip into Social Security early, thus definitely reducing her monthly payments.

But few stories like Miller’s have circulated in the media coverage of the economy at the end of the pandemic – as vaccinations allow businesses to reopen and the spotlight shines the spotlight on their frantic search for workers.

More than two dozen states have prematurely ended a federal program that adds $ 300 to weekly unemployment checks to help beneficiaries overcome unemployment during the pandemic. Lawmakers in those states and some business owners say the additional benefits – which are already expected to end nationwide in September – are suppressing people’s motivation to look for work.

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is also seeking a swift end to supplemental payments, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos calling the program a “work disincentive” that incites “mischief” among the unemployed. The legislature approved a bill to end the program, but Evers vetoed it, saying supporters lacked evidence it would reduce labor shortages.

Miller hears how politicians have changed their description of the unemployed.

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(Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

“We are not a bunch of lazy people,” she said. “We were workers who lost our jobs and are now being asked to do things we have no experience with.”

Miller was one of 10 people who spoke to WPR and Wisconsin Watch about rebuilding their lives after losing their jobs during the pandemic. Thirteen others contacted WPR’s WHYsconsin project with questions about accessing late unemployment assistance and recounted their struggles to find work; they did not respond to inquiries or declined to be interviewed, citing the stigma surrounding the unemployed still.

The interviews illustrate the lingering challenges and difficult choices in the effort to re-enter the workforce. Some are still waiting for the state to pay unemployment benefits from the first days of the pandemic.

During her wait last year for unemployment benefits, Miller feared losing the Rockford, Illinois home she shares with her 38-year-old son and 18-year-old grandson.

Miller and his son previously worked across the border in Janesville. That’s why they turned to Wisconsin DWD, which processes jobless claims, after the pandemic put the two out of work. But Miller and his son – who waited 13 weeks for his compensation – were among the thousands who waited for the DWD for months or more.

Worried about her mortgage, Miller called for a federal pandemic program that allowed most homeowners to defer payments for up to 18 months without penalty – just in case she needed it. Instead, the Millers stayed up to date on the mortgage by depleting their savings of around $ 10,000 while waiting for unemployment assistance.

Miller also saved around $ 120 a month on car payments by selling his 2014 Kia ​​Soul back to the dealership and leasing another, less sophisticated Soul. But money remained limited when she turned 65 in September, even after her unemployment benefits started arriving. She therefore appealed to Social Security.

Any income helped the family get by, including federal unemployment supplements and stimulus payments. These and other policies – including state and federal deportation moratoria – have deeply benefited Americans affected by the pandemic. A University of Michigan analysis of US Census Bureau data found that federal pandemic aid has helped many Americans fight hunger, anxiety, and depression.

working woman

US employers created 850,000 jobs in June, and many came with higher wages, especially in the entertainment and hospitality industry. Yet the country has 6.8 million fewer jobs compared to February 2020, before the pandemic brought much of the economy to a halt.

“We are reaching the point where vaccinations become widespread and people feel comfortable going back to the world,” said Julia Raifman, assistant professor at Boston University and COVID-19 US State Policy principal investigator. database. “I think it’s really important to go with people (with pandemic assistance) until they can find jobs that will be good in the long run.”

Economists offer mixed views on whether the most recent federal unemployment supplement is a major drag on work. And the Indeed Hiring Lab research found that job search activity in May – measured in clicks on posts – has temporarily and only increased slightly in states that have announced the early end of federal supplements. He cites evidence that the job search returned to normal on the eighth day after the advertisements.

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Meanwhile, search activity is up in some states that opted out of the enhanced benefits in June, and down in others – in some cases below national trends, Indeed reported in late June.

After Jay Baukin, 63, lost two months of work at the start of the pandemic, Goodwill rehired him to his part-time job in June 2020, but it took DWD over a year to provide unemployment assistance . Baukin, who suffered a head injury in a car accident 18 years ago, is partially dependent on federal Social Security disability insurance payments. But monthly checks of around $ 1,500 don’t fully cover his Dane County bills. Baukin called his 24-hour a week salary “essential” to his survival.

“Otherwise I would be around the corner with a sign saying ‘I’m going to work for the food’,” he said.

Unlike most states, Wisconsin prohibits federal disability workers from receiving regular unemployment assistance, and the DWD initially extended that ban to PUA before changing course last summer. Baukin spent a year asking for this compensation.

In May 2021, a state administrative judge finally ruled in his favor, but Baukin says it took more than a month to see help; he was told that the DWD had not loaded the judge’s notes into their dilapidated computer system, thus prolonging the wait. In frustration, he stopped checking his online portal with the ministry, so it took two weeks to realize he had been paid.

Pierre Young, 51, of Milwaukee is struggling to pay rent after losing his part-time job in the department’s warehouse and being denied unemployment compensation. His federal disability status torpedoed his regular claim and he lost PUA after learning he had not submitted his pay stubs quickly enough. He is appealing this decision but has sold his two trucks to pay his bills in the meantime. The 1998 Chevy Tahoe pickup and the 2002 Dodge Ram pickup – “a beater with a heater” – grossed around $ 800 together.

But Young’s new lack of transportation limits his work options, making it difficult even to land an interview, he said. He would love to take a 12 week construction job he found, but getting to the job site in Iowa would be impossible.

(Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP via Getty Images)

A felony conviction on his record – a hurdle for many Wisconsinians – likely hinders his search further, Young said, but “my lack of a vehicle is really what puts me in a box.”

“I have to have a roof over my head,” he added. “So I had no choice but to sell the vehicle, you know?” “

Across the border in Rockford, Miller said she would take any job she could do.

“I would be prepared to work for roughly minimum wage,” Miller said. “I have my social security. But I have to supplement it. It is not enough to live.”

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The nonprofit outlet Wisconsin Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.

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About Bradley J. Bridges

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