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Shawn Vestal: Jobless in Spokane and watching Congress, hoping for the best

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Sparks  (Courtesy Ryan Sparks)
Sparks (Courtesy Ryan Sparks)

Ryan Sparks is watching the Senate debates about coronavirus relief closely.

For her – as for thousands in our region – the debate is not philosophical or political. It’s about next month’s rent. It’s about groceries in August for the three boys she and her boyfriend are raising. It’s about surviving a pandemic that made it all but impossible for her to work and take care of her family – which has been made easier by the $600-a-week lifeline she receives in addition to her unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the Senate is now debating how much to trim that benefit, which expires this weekend, in a new round or relief spending. One proposal would drop added relief payments for those rendered jobless by the pandemic to $100 a week, on top of the regular unemployment insurance.

“It’s scary,” Sparks said Thursday. “That’s going to put the majority of people on unemployment insurance making $400 a week. That’s $1,600 a month. You can’t even make rent for a grand. People can’t survive like that.”

Sparks is among the 10 percent of Spokane’s workforce who are without work during the pandemic, which has been an unprecedented job-loss crisis. Statewide, more than 1.2 million individual unemployment claims have been filed, and nearly 1 million Washingtonians have received benefits. More than 26 million Americans have received the additional $600 benefits, and the economic crisis that made them necessary is nowhere near the end.

Congress added a $600 weekly stipend to unemployment payments in its first relief package – a recognition that the pandemic was putting a unique set of financial stresses on families, that employment opportunities were vanishingly few, and that normal unemployment payments simply did not replace lost income sufficiently to keep people afloat.

In an economy that relies heavily on consumer spending, the extra payments have also been crucial as an economic stimulus. The disappearance of that spending could have devastating effects on the overall economy, as well.

As the benefits expire, though, Congress has yet to decide whether, or how, the payments will change. The debate among the Republican Senate majority has been hung up on the issue of how to help unemployed people and others struggling at the lower reaches of the economy. Some in the GOP, who were quite happy to blow up the deficit to give large tax cuts to the wealthy, have rediscovered their fiscal conservatism and debt hawkishness when it comes to helping people like Sparks.

A 33-year-old with 10 years of experience as an in-home caregiver in Spokane, Sparks lost her part-time job this spring when the pandemic shut down the day care where she took her 2-year-old son, and she couldn’t replace the care. Then school closed, and her 7-year-old was home during the day, along with her boyfriend’s 14-year-old son.

Sparks has lived through months of financial stress and uncertainty, a combination of pandemic-related issues and bureaucratic fumbling over the delivery of benefits. She qualified for unemployment insurance, but found herself awaiting payments for six weeks as the state struggled to manage the unemployment fraud crisis. The failure by the state to pay benefits in a timely fashion to hundreds of thousands of seemingly qualified beneficiaries is now the subject of legal challenges.

Sparks also applied for food stamps, and received them for a time before they were cut off because her unemployment benefits – for which she qualified but was still not being paid – gave her too much income, she said.

She eventually began receiving about $800 a week – about $200 in regular unemployment and the $600 boost. That gave her slightly more than she was earning while employed, though she also lost benefits, including health care coverage, while not working.

Her boyfriend received unemployment as well for a time, but has been able to return to work part time, also as an in-home caregiver, she said.

Sparks is caught in a dilemma. She doesn’t feel safe returning to work in a health care setting, because she has asthma and is vulnerable to the virus, and other options are virtually nonexistent or impossible because of child care.

“I can’t even be a barista,” she said, “because I don’t have barista experience.”

Like parents all over, Sparks is wondering what will happen with school in the fall. She’s doubtful they will be able to open, and she doesn’t see how she can juggle having her kids to care for and working a job.

She knows that some people are critical of the extra payments, or worried that if they’re too generous, people won’t go back to work. But she is all but trapped by these circumstances – the pileup of the pandemic, health concerns, a lousy job market, the demands of child care and the uncertainties around school and the future. Almost all of it, from the shutdown orders to the amount of the relief she will receive from Congress, is beyond her control.

For now, she’s waiting on Congress, and hoping for the best. As with everything else that has come her way during the pandemic, she’ll have no choice but to adjust to whatever happens next.

Even if the $600 dropped to $100, “I’ll make it work,” she said. “When you have five people in the household, you have to. It’s going to be hard.”

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