A Gap in Federal Unemployment Benefits Is Now Unavoidable

July 23, 2020

Tens of millions of laid-off American workers will go weeks without federal jobless aid — because Congress hasn't renewed the benefits in time for overwhelmed state unemployment systems to adjust their computers.

State offices will need weeks to reprogram their systems to account for an extension of the $600 weekly federal payments that expire on Saturday — or any changes that Congress makes to the benefit amount or eligibility rules. That comes on top of hardships faced by workers in states like Washington and Nevada. They've already waited months to get their first payments in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic because their unemployment offices can't handle the historic flood of claims. 

In some states with particularly antiquated systems, it's already too late to prevent a lapse, even though the federal benefits haven't officially expired, according to people familiar with how the systems work. 

A gap in the federal program could be devastating for laid-off workers, many of whom are on the verge of eviction and are already behind on their bills. The $600 federal check comes on top of workers' regular benefit payments, which average around $340. The weekly benefit amount varies by state and is as low as $235 per week in Mississippi.

"I know my clients are fearful that they're going to have a deluge use of bills that are going to become due very quickly, and that $600 supplement was critical to ensuring that they could meet those bills," said Tori Dempsey of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which offers free legal services to low-income Americans. "Without it, and any prospect returning to any sort of secure employment, it's unnerving for a lot of them."

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