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With Unemployment Aid Set To Run Out, 'I Have No Idea How I’m Going To Pay My Bills'

With more than 215,000 jobs lost, the leisure & hospitality industry has fared worse in the last year than any other sector in Pennsylvania, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry.";

Pittsburgher Criseena Johnson is one of millions of people who will lose her unemployment benefits in a matter of days, without Congressional action.

Johnson, a single mother who worked for more than 15 years in the restaurant industry, has been out of a job since March.

“I’m one of those people that’s teetering the line of picking which one do I want to keep, do I want to feed my family, or do I want to keep my car?”

And that’s before she expects her unemployment to end on Dec. 26.

Two programs – Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – will end this month if Congress does not extend them.

Talks are ongoing in Washington, D.C. as to whether the programs will be extended, and if so, for how many weeks.

State officials say if these programs are allowed to end about half a million Pennsylvanians will abruptly lose their lifeline.

“I – other than public assistance or maybe being able to go be on SNAP benefits or things like that – I have no idea how I’m going to pay my bills, no idea, no idea, I haven’t the slightest idea,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, the unemployment payments have been her only source of income. She’s also gotten some assistance from the Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid group, which has helped steer donations to those from the hard-hit restaurant industry.

A recent analysis by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research found employment in the region’s restaurants has declined by more than 31,000 people this year.

Advocates argue with coronavirus cases surging, restrictions on in-person dining still in place, and other service sector jobs also hard-hit, Congress should extend benefits for several months at a minimum.

“The economy is not going to get better for another quarter at least,” said Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. “There’s just no expectation that the vaccine is going to be spread widely enough that people get reemployed” prior to that.

It’s not unusual during times of recession for the government to allow laid-off workers to collect unemployment for lengthy periods as the economy slowly recovers, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“During the last recession, there were… several separate extensions. And workers were able to get up to 99 weeks of benefits at the peak of the last recession,” Evermore said.

“What is unusual is how few weeks we’re really talking about here,” she said, as Congress has talked about extending the programs for 16, 12, or even only 10 weeks. 

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.