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How Some Are Coping With Expiring Unemployment Benefits

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And on this Labor Day, millions of workers across the U.S. are about to lose a critical lifeline. Several federal programs that extended unemployment benefits in response to the pandemic expire today. That means 7 1/2 million people will see their aid cut entirely, while millions more will have their benefits reduced by $300 a week. Now, those benefits have been crucial for out of work people like Kate in Brooklyn, N.Y.

KATE: I'm 45 years old. I've survived so much. I've made it work in so many different countries and so many different cities. I have never felt this close to despair.

CORNISH: She doesn't want us to use her last name because Kate is worried it will affect her immigration status.

KATE: I was one of those people that if things went wrong, I was a couple of paychecks away from going down the drain, as (laughter) the pandemic proved. But I'd never really felt that way because I didn't see a pandemic coming.

CORNISH: But when it did hit, her savings dwindled. So being eligible for extended jobless benefits was a game changer.

KATE: The relief when it came through, the utter relief - I remember that very well.

CORNISH: Anita Perkins, a music teacher in Spokane, Wash., echoes that feeling.

ANITA PERKINS: It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I said, I'm going to be OK for a while.

CORNISH: Now, the benefits have kept her bills up to date, and she's now back at work. But there's a six-week gap between her last unemployment check and her first paycheck, and the bills aren't stopping.

PERKINS: And so there's a month and a half that is going to be difficult to come up with.

CORNISH: David Toms is also an educator in Milwaukee. He says for now, as Delta variant cases put more and more people in the hospital, he's not willing to take the chance on a minimum-wage job that doesn't allow for remote work.

DAVID TOMS: Like, it's not me being lazy. It's just logically speaking, like, I'm going to go below what I was making even as a college student. It just doesn't make sense to me. All that is not worth risking my life, you know?

CORNISH: Lauren Bailey in Silver Spring, Md., had to weigh that risk. Last March, she had to stop driving for Uber when Covid was first reported in the U.S.

LAUREN BAILEY: I already have health issues and a compromised immune system.

CORNISH: And without a remote work option, she relied heavily on the federal benefits.

BAILEY: With unemployment, I was able to pay all of my bills, so I was able to stay afloat.

CORNISH: But Lauren, David, Anita and Kate - well, they all now have to figure out another safety net. Kate is starting to feel like her options have run out, so she's hoping for more empathy from lawmakers.

KATE: It's not enough people in the Senate who know what this feels like. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.