Two anchors of COVID safety net ending, affecting millions

  • Mary Taboniar, right, a housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, sits with her children, Mark Daniel Taboniar, 13, and Ma Dennise Taboniar, 12, at their home in Waipahu, Hawaii, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the COVID pandemic. The single mother of two saw her income completely vanish as the virus devastated the hospitality industry. Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

WASHINGTON — Mary Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the COVID pandemic. A housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, the single mother 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, 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 in office buildings and food service workers in airports. “We’re not anywhere near done. People still need help. … For millions of people nothing has changed from a year and a half ago.”

For Taboniar, 43, that means her unemployment benefits will completely disappear — even as her work hours vanish again. A fresh virus surge prompted Hawaii’s governor to recommend that vacationers delay their plans.

“It’s really scaring me,” she said. “How can I pay rent if I don’t have unemployment and my job isn’t back?”

She’s planning to apply for the newly expanded SNAP assistance program, better known as food stamps, but doubts that will be enough to make up the difference. “I’m just grasping for anything,” she said.

President Joe Biden’s administration believes the U.S. economy is strong enough not to be rattled by evictions or the drop in unemployment benefits. Officials maintain 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 spokesperson said there were no plans to reevaluate the end of the unemployment benefits.

“Twenty-two-trillion-dollar economies work in no small part on momentum and we have strong momentum going in the right direction on behalf of the American workforce,” said Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he believed the country’s labor force was ready for the shift.

“Overall the economy is moving forward and recovering,” Walsh said in an interview. “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 a fairly healthy 5.2%. But Andrew Stettler, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, says the end of the expanded unemployment benefits is still coming too early.

Rather than setting an arbitrary deadline, Stettler says the administration should have tied the end of the the protections to specific economic recovery metrics. He suggests three consecutive months with nationwide unemployment below 5% as a reasonable benchmark to trigger the end of the unemployment benefits.

“This does seem to be the wrong policy decision based on where we are,” Stettler said.

The end to these protections while the economic crisis persists could have a devastating impact on lower-middle class families that were barely holding on through the pandemic. Potentially millions of people “will have a more difficult time regaining the foothold in the middle class that they lost,” Stettler said.

Biden and the Democrats who control Congress are at a crossroads, allowing the aid to expire as they focus instead on his more sweeping “build back better” package of infrastructure and other spending. The $3.5 trillion proposal would rebuild many of the safety net programs, but it faces hurdles in the closely divided Congress.

In the meantime, families will have to make do.

“These are two very important things that are expiring. There’s no doubt that there will be families impacted by their expiration and that they will have additional hardship,” Sharon Parrott, the president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said in an interview.

The COVID-19 response has been sweeping in its size and scope, some $5 trillion in federal expenditures since the virus outbreak in 2020, an unprecedented undertaking.

Congressional Republicans had supported some of the initial COVID-19 outlays, but voted lockstep against Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package earlier this year as unnecessary. Many argued against extending another round of unemployment aid, and Republicans vow to oppose Biden’s $3.5 trillion package lawmakers are expected to consider later this month.

There are still multiple avenues of support available, although in some cases the actual delivery of that support has been problematic.

States with higher levels of unemployment can use the $350 billion worth of aid they received from the relief package to expand their own jobless payments, as noted by an Aug. 19 letter by Walsh and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Federal rental assistance funds remain available, though the money has been slow to get out the door, leaving the White House and lawmakers pushing state and local officials to disperse funds more quickly to both landlords and tenants.

The investment bank Morgan Stanley estimated Thursday that the economy will grow at an annual pace of 2.9% in the third quarter, down sharply from its prior forecast of 6.5%. That decline largely reflects a pullback in federal aid spending and supply chain bottlenecks.

And the economy still faces hurdles. Union officials says sectors like hotel housekeepers and office janitorial staffs have been the slowest to recover.

“Our industry is the tip of the spear when it comes to COVID,” said D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a union that represents hotel housekeepers — a field that is “primarily staffed by women and people of color.”

Many of those housekeepers never returned to full employment even as Americans resumed traveling and hotel occupancy rates swelled over the summer.

Taylor said several major hotel chains have moved to permanently cut down on labor costs by reducing levels of service under the guise of COVID. Taboniar’s hotel in Hawaii for example has shifted to cleaning rooms every five days unless the guest specifically requests otherwise in advance. Even as the hotel was at more than 90% occupancy in August, she was only employed for half her usual pre-pandemic number of days.

The delta variant of the coronavirus also poses a challenge, threatening future school closures and the delay of plans to return workers to their offices.

Walsh called the delta variant “an asterisk on everything.”

The sudden lapse of a crucial element of the pandemic safety net has fueled calls for a re-evaluation of the entire unemployment benefits system. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee, said in an interview 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,” Wyden said.

One of the changes he proposes is to have jobless benefits more linked to economic conditions, so they won’t expire in times of need. “We got to take the unemployment system into the 21st century,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.

15 Comments
  1. nobody September 7, 2021 6:16 am Reply

    We all know there’s a job out there if she wants one. Why would she, until now.


    1. allknow September 7, 2021 10:17 am Reply

      If it’s that easy, I’m sure it would be no sweat off your brow to help her locate this job. You have her name, I’m sure you could contact her and offer assistance.


      1. CommonSenseish September 7, 2021 3:14 pm Reply

        allknow, umm… all one has to do is open their eyes. there are literally business out there BEGGING for employees. Already gotta share by hard earned tax dollars with these people, now you asking us to help them get employment too? Get real.


      2. manawai September 8, 2021 9:43 am Reply

        If she’s that simple that she can’t look for the many jobs that are available now, then maybe she’s her own problem.


  2. Natural September 7, 2021 6:41 am Reply

    This headline has it all wrong!
    Thanks to the SCAMDEMIC and our I’ll informed tyrannical politicians bankrupting millions with unscientific cowardly reactions.
    This propaganda needs to stop!


    1. annette September 8, 2021 6:52 am Reply

      Your are entirely disillusioned. Sit in silence and ask truth to be given and it will. Your belief system is a part of the spread of untruths that is harming our world in ways you will never know.


  3. nothings free September 7, 2021 6:43 am Reply

    All “Government” gifting of “free” money is nothing more that a “not worked for” benefit at the expense of someone else who did work for it! Our Society now has a majority who are weak, entitled, trolls that actually think they’re a smart and a good person for scamming the system to get as much free stuff as possible that was sucked out of the actual workers. Kind of like a Vampire? There are lots of jobs available in America! Quit scamming the system for “free” stuff and go get one!!


    1. youre not September 7, 2021 10:19 am Reply

      So, just how well do you think the economy would have fared without that safety net in place during the last couple of years? You think you’d still have any money if this all collapsed?


      1. manawai September 8, 2021 9:55 am Reply

        The public assistance has gone on for too long and enabled people to sit at home and complain on the computer. We pay a LOT of money in State taxes and HGEA runs its TV ads saying how great they are when they’re not coordinating getting these people off their proverbials and out getting one of the many jobs that are available. They should be out looking for and getting work that’s available. We shouldn’t subsidize them just because they don’t want to wash dishes? Employers are on the TV’s these unemployed are couch-watching asking for people to apply. We’re being too kind and teaching people to be entitled, unproductive and blaming everyone else for their own situation.


  4. LTEreader September 7, 2021 10:45 am Reply

    nothings free:

    In yet another of your typically negative, ill informed rants you negated a key element – one has to be employed previously BEFORE they can collect unemployment. They too were “actual workers.” LOL


  5. CommonSenseish September 7, 2021 11:19 am Reply

    No pity for these people. Awe….now you need to get a job… boohoo…


    1. Un September 7, 2021 6:44 pm Reply

      What’s not so common is thinking that all available jobs and all people are equal.


  6. Nick September 7, 2021 11:24 am Reply

    I would assume that the hospitality workers are now competing for any open jobs the island might have. I hope she finds an opportunity for herself and her family.


  7. annette September 8, 2021 7:04 am Reply

    Where is the compassion here? Seriously?!!! This is a mother with two children who has worked and wishes to stay employed. Hard times have fallen upon good and hardworking people, can we spread a little positivity with our comments, instead of judgment and unkindness? You don’t know the shoes she has walked in, I don’t know your past and history but I do know that times have been tough for everyone, be it mentally, emotionally, financially or whatever else. This deserves compassion, for Gods sake, we have to pull together. I choose to be a part of the solution, not the ongoing vitriol that divides.


    1. manawai September 8, 2021 9:58 am Reply

      Annette, she should take one of the many jobs that are available. If it doesn’t pay enough then we should consider government subsidy to help out but only if she’s working!


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