Mary Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the pandemic. A housekeeper at a resort in Honolulu, the single mom of two saw her income completely vanish as the virus devastated the hospitality industry. For more than a year, Taboniar depended entirely on boosted unemployment benefits and a network of local foodbanks to feed her family. Even this summer as the vaccine rollout took hold and tourists began to travel again, her work was slow to return, peaking at 11 days in August—about half her pre-pandemic workload. Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. Two primary anchors of the government’s COVID protection package are ending or have recently ended. Starting Monday, the AP reports that an estimated 8.9 million people will lose all unemployment benefits. A federal eviction moratorium already has expired.
While other aspects of pandemic assistance including rental aid and the expanded Child Tax Credit are still widely available, untold millions of Americans will face Labor Day with a suddenly shrunken social safety net. "This will be a double whammy of hardship,” said Jamie Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, a union that represents custodians and food service workers. “For millions of people nothing has changed from a year and a half ago.” A fresh virus surge prompted Hawaii's governor to recommend that vacationers delay plans. President Biden's administration believes the US economy is strong enough not to be rattled by evictions or the drop in benefits. Officials say that other elements of the safety net, like the Child Tax Credit and the SNAP program (which Biden permanently boosted earlier this summer) are enough to smooth things over. On Friday, a White House rep said there were no plans to reevaluate the end of the unemployment benefits.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh believes the country's labor force is ready. “Overall the economy is moving forward and recovering,” Walsh says. "I think the American economy and the American worker are in a better position going into Labor Day 2021 than they were on Labor Day 2020.” Walsh and others point to encouraging job numbers; as of Friday the unemployment rate was down to 5.2%. Biden and Congressional Democrats are at a crossroads, allowing the aid to expire as they focus on his sweeping “build back better” infrastructure package. The $3.5 trillion proposal would rebuild many safety net programs, but it faces hurdles in the closely divided Congress. The lapse of a crucial element of the pandemic safety net has fueled calls for re-evaluating the entire unemployment benefits system. Finance Committee chair Sen. Ron Wyden says it's crucial that Congress modernizes the unemployment insurance system as part of the package: “It's heartbreaking to know it didn't have to be this way."
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