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Unemployed Chicago residents will see benefits shrink by $600 a week without pandemic relief package

Gerardo Reyes, of Little Village, is among the workers in Chicago who are still without a job because of the pandemic. He described the federal benefit of $600 as a “lifesaver,” but he is unsure what will happen if it isn’t extended. “They just throw scraps,” he said. “It’s a hard place to be in sometimes if you let it get to you”

Gerardo Reyes, 42, poses for a portrait outside his home in Little Village, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Gerardo Reyes, 42, a Little Village resident, lost his job at Rohner Press and now faces the possibility of losing some of his unemployment benefits. “I went from being crucial and very essential to nonessential and unemployed,” Reyes said.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For more than 10 years, it seemed like Gerardo Reyes never took a break from his job at a small printing press in Chicago unless it was for a holiday.

Even with news about the increasing cases of COVID-19 in Illinois, he thought his job was secure and the business would stay afloat like it did during the 2007 recession. But it’s now been 18 weeks since Reyes was laid off from Rohner Press after it temporarily closed because of the pandemic.

He is among thousands of people in Illinois who could see their weekly unemployment benefits shrink unless Congress extends the COVID-19 federal pandemic-related unemployment compensation that has given workers an extra $600 a week of unemployment insurance — part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was signed into law March 27.

“I went from being crucial and very essential to nonessential and unemployed,” said Reyes, 42, who’s worked at the press since he graduated from college. “That was a reality check that even when you think (you) have a guaranteed job to knowing that anything can happen.”

This is the last week that workers like Reyes, of Little Village, can file a claim to receive the additional $600, which has been available nationwide for those who sought unemployment insurance from March 29 to July 25. The U.S. Senate continues working on an additional relief package, which could be split into several bills. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in an interview with CNBC that the $600 won’t be extended and the unemployment benefits will add up to about 70% of the person’s previous wages.

In Illinois, more than 600,000 people sought unemployment benefits earlier this month, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The unemployment rate in Illinois is 14.6%, while the national unemployment rate is 11.1%.

A person without dependents could receive up to $1,084 a week in Illinois, but that may drop to $484 a week by next week, according to IDES.

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said the $600 benefit didn’t stop people from returning to work, pointing out that the unemployment rate has not grown as much as expected. But the extra $600 did give people the ability to refuse unsafe working conditions.

“It did what it was supposed to do — it kept the economy from collapsing and kept people home,” Evermore said.

She thinks getting rid of the benefit will lead to more people defaulting on mortgages and rent. “Immediately taking $2,400 out of everyone’s monthly pay sure sounds to me like a recipe for not being able to make rent,” Evermore said.

Jameal Hill, 33, of West Town, is worried about paying his $800 monthly rent and other bills and supporting his wife and four children. Hill lost his job working at a moving company last fall and had been receiving unemployment, including the extra $600, but recently exhausted his benefits.

“I’m doing the best I can,” Hill said. “I pray a lot. I believe that if there is a will, there is a way.”

Hill has spent days searching the internet for jobs and is considering setting up a food cart to make ends meet. He has an interview lined up, but the job would pay him $12 an hour —less than what he previously received in unemployment benefits — making it difficult to support his family.

Jameal Hill, 33, poses for a portrait outside his home in West Town, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Jameal Hill, 33, a West Town resident, lost his job working at a moving company last fall and had been receiving unemployment but recently exhausted his benefits.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Further complicating his job search is his criminal record, which he believes is why he hasn’t been able to find work.

“We’ve done wrong before,” Hill said. “We are trying to do the right thing, as they say, to become a productive member of society. How can we?”

The pandemic has exposed inequalities in the workforce, said Frank Manzo, the policy director at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. He co-authored a study that found that in businesses like bars and restaurants that have experienced higher rates of unemployment or reduced hours, about 22% of workers are Latinos and 13% are Black.

Illinois officials could enact laws on hazard pay and family leave that could improve workers’ conditions and soften the blow from the reduction in unemployment benefits, Manzo said.

The state could also implement a work share program, he said. The program would allow employers to reduce hours for workers, who would then be able to access prorated unemployment benefits.

Sam Salustro, a spokesman for IDES, said Wednesday the agency is in the early stages of beginning a search for someone to lead a work share program, but it won’t be implemented before the federal benefit expires this week.

Reyes, who remains on unemployment, is hopeful the printing press will reopen soon, though he was told when it does reopen some workers might only come back on a part-time basis. And while he has found listings for jobs, most are low-paying but involve a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

The federal benefit was a “lifesaver” for Reyes, who said he was able to continue paying his rent and bills on time. In fact, he made about $100 to $200 more on unemployment than his net pay while working, so that he was able to save.

Gerardo Reyes, 42, poses for a portrait at his home in Little Village, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Gerardo Reyes, 42, a Little Village resident, is hopeful he can restart his job at a local printing press.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For now, he’s working on his portfolio, taking up woodworking and can DJ on the side. He knows things like buying a home are now out of the question.

“It’s tough when you hear about other countries ... that are willing to help out the working class a lot more,” Reyes said. “Whereas here, it seems like the people in power and the Republicans despise the working class. They just throw scraps. It’s a hard place to be in sometimes if you let it get to you.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.