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Pandemic Unemployment Benefits Are Ending Early In Over 2 Dozen States

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. economy is bouncing back fast, and many business people complain they're having a hard time finding enough workers to keep up, yet millions of Americans are still unemployed. Some Republican governors argue that enhanced unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for work. More than two dozen states now plan to cut off those benefits early. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mississippi is one of the first states to phase out benefits at the end of next week. That's bad news for Nicole Jones of Jackson, who lost her job at a Head Start center to the pandemic. Since then, unemployment has been helping keep her family afloat.

NICOLE JONES: I have a mortgage. I have a car note. I have a light bill, gas bill, water bill, internet bill. I think it's just really unfair that they are taking that away from households that are not able to get back to work right now.

HORSLEY: Jones says she's wary of going back to Head Start. Mississippi has the nation's lowest COVID vaccination rate. And while Jones acknowledges she's yet to get the shot herself, she's nervous about passing the virus on to her children.

JONES: They're not looking at the fact that a lot of people are not able to go back to work because of health issues, or child care is an issue.

HORSLEY: Unemployment in Mississippi is still higher than the national average. But as far as Governor Tate Reeves is concerned, the pandemic is over, and it's time to put people back to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TATE REEVES: If you go around anywhere in our state and you talk to small-business owners, you talk to large-business owners, you talk to employees, you talk to consumers, what you hear repeatedly is that it's very difficult to find people to work.

HORSLEY: Many employers, from restaurants to factories, complain that enhanced unemployment benefits have made it harder for them to find workers. Aleetha Dixon of Dallas says the problem is not that the benefits are too high, but that the competing wages are too low.

ALEETHA DIXON: I've never been one that's ran away from work. Unemployment doesn't stop a person from wanting to work. People want to work. But the fact of the matter is, if you have people going back to working jobs that don't want to pay, jobs that are paying people the bare minimum, people already were barely surviving before COVID.

HORSLEY: Dixon, who lost her job working trade shows last year, says that industry is still far from recovered. She's also caring for a disabled son. Federal unemployment benefits have offered a lifeline, she says, only to have Texas leaders snatch it away.

DIXON: We're talking about people who don't have to worry about their lights getting cut out. They don't have to worry about being put out of their home because they can't pay rent. They don't have to worry about if their child is going to be able to eat a full meal the next day.

HORSLEY: In Arizona, the state government is preserving some enhanced benefits for unemployed residents through the summer but plans to stop offering the extra $300 a week that Congress authorized in early July. That will leave Amy Cabrera, who lives outside of Phoenix, with just $214 a week to live on.

AMY CABRERA: I couldn't even tell you what else I could possibly cut out. I mean, I don't go anywhere. I don't do anything. I actually took on a roommate. And at 46 years old, that's kind of, like, not an easy task to bring on some stranger into your house when you're used to living the way you live.

HORSLEY: Cabrera, who used to work as an auditor for a meeting and travel company, says while fast-food and convenience store jobs are abundant, she's hoping to find something in an office. So far, she's had only one interview.

CABRERA: The only thing that really aggravates me is all the people that think we're living high on the hog, collecting government funding and I'm out getting my nails done and traveling the world or something. Trust me; I would rather have my job back and living back the way I was supposed to be or the way I was.

HORSLEY: More than 4 million people are likely to have their jobless benefits cut prematurely this summer, potentially reducing spending in their communities by billions of dollars. Economists are divided over how that might affect hiring in the months to come. But with half the states cutting benefits and the other half leaving them in place, we're about to embark on a big national experiment. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.