Nearly half a million in state will lose unemployment benefits without new federal aid package
April Ibanez has been getting a $260 unemployment check every two weeks. She needs it to help pay for rent, groceries and other essentials for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, Ruby. But it ends the day after Christmas.
April Ibanez didn’t expect to be out of work for long when she was furloughed from her Downtown restaurant job at the start of the pandemic.
The single mother thought it would be temporary, just until the curve was flattened, and she would be back serving people with her gracious smile. Then the call came: She’d been laid off.
Like many, she filed for unemployment. That also would be temporary, she thought. She’d find work.
Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago.
Eight months later, she still hasn’t.
Now, she is at risk of losing the $260 biweekly unemployment check she has depended on to help with rent, groceries and other essentials for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, Ruby.
That money runs out the day after Christmas.
She isn’t alone. According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, over 447,000 Illinoisans will lose unemployment benefits the day after Christmas if a new federal relief package with safeguards for the unemployed isn’t passed by then. An additional 40,000 workers will likely exhaust their aid by the end of January.
“The government should be more supportive in helping people get back on their feet,” Ibanez said. “They should understand people have bills to pay, children to look after and we just can’t do it right now.”
In Illinois, workers who lost jobs due to the pandemic were able to receive standard unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks. The CARES Act, passed in April, included money to extend those benefits. It also provided new benefits to self-employed workers impacted by the pandemic.
Those federal aids will expire the day after Christmas in Illinois.
Top Democrats in Congress have shown an interest in supporting a $908 billion relief package with more unemployment benefits. That’s significantly less than the revised $2.2 trillion Heroes Act Democrats passed in the House in October, but more than the $500 billion relief plan put forward by Senate Republicans, which includes a one-month extension of unemployment benefits.
‘Trying to survive’ while on the hunt
For the last three weeks, Ibanez and Ruby have lived in a Chinatown hotel.
She has job offers to work second and third shift at some warehouses but “I can’t take those jobs because daycares are closed when my shift would start and I have no one to watch her,” Ibanez said.
Ibanez has mostly worked in the hospitality industry but those jobs are hard to come by, too, with businesses at skeleton staff levels.
Being unemployed for eight months has caused a “darkness” in her life, which Ibanez said “haunts” her without notice. She finds herself sleeping in, struggling to get out of the bed. It’s also affecting Ruby’s morning routine.
“I’m always very worried and I try to clear my mind but it’s hard,” Ibanez said. “I can’t even go on a walk without thinking about what I need for my daughter or debating if I should spend money on something like a bag of chips. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Ibanez has sought free therapy for her stress and depression because “just having someone to talk to during this time is very helpful.”
A cook and artist ‘just trying to survive’
Juan Lugo’s employer did their best to keep him on the books. He was first furloughed from his job as a cook back in March, and kept paying for his medical insurance during that time. His former employer launched a GoFundMe to help their employees and gave him some money for groceries.
“The pandemic kept getting worse and it didn’t look good for us coming back,” Lugo said. “So I applied for unemployment in April and I got it pretty quickly which helped me pay down some credit cards because I knew I wasn’t going to get this forever.”
But the $548 biweekly check barely covers half his bills now and he needed to find a way to make ends meet. He had been making double that.
“Now, I’m doing day labor work, picking up trash or asking people if I can throw their garbage away,” Lugo said.
Lugo is also an artist, painting what he calls spontaneous portraits of famous musicians and civil rights icons. He would park his van on Division Street in Humboldt Park and sell his art to anyone walking by. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center also let him sell his art at its weekly “¡WEPA! Community Pop Up.”
“That pop-up was a godsend and helped me out a little because I could display my art, sell it on the weekend and not have to pay a vendor fee,” Lugo said. “It helped pay some of my bills and buy groceries.”
Lugo is passionate and excited when talking about his art, but he knows he can’t depend on art alone to survive. Most days, he walks away with $20 in sales, and cold weather has put an end to the outdoor pop-up.
“I’m pretty much living off credit cards right now — I have eight of them,” Lugo said.
“I’m having to take a cash advance on them now. I’m just borrowing to pay off borrowed things,” he added. “I know my credit is shot after all of this, but I’m just trying to survive.”
Lugo believes his age is a big reason he can’t find a job despite decades of experience as a cook.
“I’m 58 years old and that is a strike against me, even if employers won’t admit it. If a 34-year-old has the same qualifications as me, why would they choose me?” Lugo said. “I’m also considered ‘at-risk’ of COVID-19 even though I’m in good shape and I am sure employers probably don’t want to take that risk with me.”
For many, a first-ever trip to the food bank
Greg Trotter, spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said food pantries across the city are overwhelmed during the pandemic, as recently unemployed people visit for the first time.
“It’s somewhat bleak and we need Congress to pass a stimulus bill and we need them to pass a stimulus bill with SNAP benefits,” Trotter said. “Congress passed a SNAP increase during the last recession and they just haven’t done it this time around and you can see the effect it’s having.”
Ibanez hasn’t qualified for SNAP since she’s been unemployed, but recently applied again, hoping for a different result. She’s avoided food distribution centers because the lines are too long but does go to Chicago Public Schools’ “Grab-and-Go Meal” sites.
Lugo was approved for SNAP but receives just $15 a month. He’s had to rely on food banks at times.
“I worked my entire life and I’ve never asked the government for a handout,” Lugo said. “What am I supposed to buy with $15?”