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Unemployed St. Louisans Struggle To Come Up With A Plan As Weekly $600 Federal Benefit Ends

Unemployment illustration
Nat Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
More than 170,000 Missourians are scrambling to figure out how to pay their August bills without federal unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of last month.

Kayla Williams is still figuring out how she’ll pay her bills at the end of the month.

She was laid off from her grocery store job in March, just before giving birth to her son. As a young, single mother of two, she’s relied heavily on unemployment benefits from the state, about $100 a week, and the extra $600 a week from the federal government.

“That was getting me Pampers, milk and also a roof over our heads to stay, because right now we stay in a hotel,” said the 19-year-old Bridgeton resident. Because of the pandemic, she’s trying to keep her distance from older, more vulnerable family members.

Federal unemployment money dried up at the end of last month for Williams and about 30 million Americans around the country. The first week in August, Missouri processed about 172,000 requests for unemployment payments of up to $320 a week, according to the state Department of Labor.

Williams said the state money alone isn’t enough to keep her family afloat. “I got money saved up, it’s just when that money go out, then what? What do I do next?” she said.

Congress has so far failed to negotiate a deal to extend unemployment money and provide a second stimulus check, and it’s unclear whether President Trump has the authority without congressional approval to follow through on recent executive orders to provide relief.

Muhammad Islam, an associate professor of economics at St. Louis University, said all of that uncertainty makes it particularly hard for low-income families to make decisions.

“They probably don't have savings to reach to. They probably don't have a 401K from which they can borrow any money. So they were really, really, really reliant on that $600,” he said.

With less money in their pockets, Islam said consumers will likely hold off on nonessential purchases, like eating out at restaurants, new school supplies or fixing up a car that still runs.

“Roughly 70% of all spending is undertaken by households. And if households don't have that income, then that's likely to have some ripple effect on the economy,” he said.

That means some already-struggling small businesses will also take a hit.

‘The work is just not there’

As federal aid money disappears, fewer people are filing for unemployment for the first time.

Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported new jobless claims fell below 1 million for the first time since the pandemic hit the economy in March.


In Missouri, new claims are also at their lowest level. About 9,000 people filed new unemployment claims in the first week in August, compared to a peak of more than 100,000 people during the last week of March.

Islam said that means things are improving, but not enough people have been able to go back to work.

“There's just a dearth of employment opportunities,” he said. “Unless those opportunities are there, these unemployed people are going to need some kind of help. It's not that they're not looking for work. It's just, the work is just not there.”

St. Louis resident Zach Becker has been searching for a job since he was laid off in February, when his former employer downsized its tech department.

“I think I've had a total of maybe 15 interviews. But most of those were in that period before the corona hit,” he said. “I mean, getting someone to really call you back at this point, it’s tough.”

Becker, who has a compromised immune system, said he’s not willing to pick up odd jobs, like delivering food, because it would put him at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. He leaves his house only once a week for groceries and medication.

Without health insurance, which he lost months ago, one of his medications costs $700 a month. After contacting the manufacturer directly and explaining his situation, he was able to get the medication for free. Becker is getting by on cost-cutting measures like this and his savings, but he said he felt more stable when he was able to get the extra federal unemployment money.

He doesn’t anticipate the job market improving anytime soon, but he said he’s confident in his ability to weather the storm for now.

“I mean, part of that plan is exhausting my savings, which is not a good idea. But yeah, what choice do I have right now?” he said.

Williams has also struggled to find a new job and child care.

She wants to work in the health care industry, starting out as a housekeeper. But, after learning the job required cleaning COVID-19 patient rooms, she didn’t apply because she said it wasn’t worth risking her kids’ health.

“I’m taking it day by day, that’s all I can do,” she said.

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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