When Pennsylvania businesses shut down en masse on March 16 due to the coronavirus, Bloomfield resident Abbey Rideout lost both her jobs within a day. She had worked as a barista at Pittsburgh’s Tazza D’Oro and Crazy Mocha cafés, but nearly five months later, she’s still out of work – and now she's lost a crucial lifeline that helped keep her head above water.
“I’ve never been on unemployment … And I’ve always prided myself on my ability to find work and do work,” Rideout said. “It’s depressing. But I would say more than that, it’s really stressful.”
Rideout said the additional jobless benefits Congress approved in late March made a huge difference for her and her partner, who’s also unemployed. Part of a larger pandemic stimulus package, the program gave an extra $600 a week to those who were already receiving unemployment insurance through their state.
The federal aid expired last Friday, however, so now Rideout only receives a weekly payment of $170 from the state. Congress has yet to reach a deal on a new stimulus bill, which has left Rideout waiting anxiously for more relief.
“Right now, I wake up at 6 in the morning every morning to walk my dog, and the first thing I do is listen to the news ... and try to hear if there’s any update,” Rideout said. “It’s really stressful. I’m holding out hope that a decision is made sooner than later.”
More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians were unemployed as of June, according to the state's Department of Labor and Industry. That month, Pennsylvania's unemployment rate stood at 13 percent, an 8.7 percentage point increase from a year earlier. Certain areas, however, are estimated to have rates around 30 percent, with predominantly Black communities in the Pittsburgh area among the hardest hit.
In Washington, Democrats want to extend the $600 jobless benefits through the end of the year. But Republicans argue that $600 is so high that it will encourage people to continue to collect unemployment rather than return to work. Economists have not found evidence that the federal payments, which amount to an hourly wage of $15 for a 40-hour work week, affect the rate at which people go back to work.
In the South Hills, Dawn Hale said she was eager to return to her job as a restaurant server in mid-June, even though the amount she makes in tips has declined sharply due to a drop-off in customers. Hale works at Al’s Cafe, a Bethel Park eatery whose owner is leading an effort to ease coronavirus-related restrictions on restaurant seating capacity and alcohol sales.
“I’m not even making minimum wage,” Hale said. But she jumped at the chance to start serving again. “I want to get back to work. I’ve worked all my life. It’s hurting my soul right now … because I feel like I’m not doing my part in society. It has hurt me financially, emotionally.”
Hale said that she burned through her savings during her first few weeks out of work, when she had yet to receive unemployment benefits. Now, she said, “It’s just hard to swallow that that $600 is just gone, because that was our cushion … We had nothing to do with [causing] this coronavirus, nothing at all.”
Rideout, meanwhile, said she does not want to go back to work. The barista acknowledged she likely receives between $150 and $200 more a week on unemployment than when she worked as a barista. But her reluctance to work is primarily due to safety: She does not want to contract the virus on the job – a scenario that she said could also leave her worse off financially, because she cannot afford health insurance.
"It would be nice to see other people again,” Rideout said. But “my big worry is that, if I do go back to work and I do happen to get sick – because any job that I would be a reasonable applicant for, I would be working with the public most likely – I would not only lose my job for getting sick and having to call out of a job I just started. But also my biggest fear is that if I do get sick … it will bankrupt me."
Rideout estimated she could get by for three weeks without more federal aid. And she said she has “mixed” feelings about congressional Democrats’ refusal last week to agree to a short-term extension of jobless benefits: Although she thinks the move might be an effective bargaining tactic, Rideout said she feels “beyond frustrated” that lawmakers have yet to strike a deal.
Cathy Martin, director of advocacy at Neighborhood Legal Services, noted that supplemental federal relief will help to prop up the broader economy. “People who are struggling,” the attorney said, will “immediately [use additional benefits] by paying the bills, buying food, and paying the rent, which helps the landlords, too.”
NLS provides free legal aid to low-income people. When COVID-19 first took hold, Martin said, the nonprofit was flooded with requests for help in filing jobless claims. Ordinarily, one attorney handles all of those cases, Martin said. But in the spring, the office assigned about 10 attorneys to a rotation dedicated to providing unemployment-related services.
Martin said that, while they waited for the state to process their claims, some of her clients “were pretty desperate to make some money to feed their family,” and continued to drive for Uber or make DoorDash deliveries.
“People were really afraid to be doing those jobs that required them to interact with strangers," Martin said. "It was really, really wrenching to talk to people saying, ‘I feel like I’m risking my childrens’ lives by going out in public. But I have to feed them.'"
She noted that NLS clients often come from predominantly Black communities that have suffered the worst unemployment rates amid COVID-19. A model of census-tract-level data indicates that within the city of Pittsburgh, rates exceed 30 percent in Bedford Dwellings and in parts of Homewood and Larimer. Outside of the city, Duquesne and McKeesport appear to have experienced the highest levels of unemployment locally.
“My clients often have very difficult lives,” Martin said. “They don’t have much money. They’re pretty vulnerable to things that go wrong. And right now, the whole world’s facing things that have gone wrong. And so as usual, it’s people who are more vulnerable already who are the hardest hit.”