Enriqueta Layune looks worried as she sits at her kitchen table.
The longtime housekeeper is one of millions of Americans who, at the end of July, will be scrambling for money when the additional $600 a week in federal pandemic unemployment stimulus expires.
Layune has worked at a variety of hotels in downtown Sacramento since emigrating from Mexico. Most recently, she worked at the Citizen Hotel, where she says she was one of the first housekeepers who helped it open 11 years ago, and where she fought hard to unionize its cleaning staff.
“The Citizen felt like a family kind of environment,” Layune said, with the help of her daughter-in-law, Amanda Layune, who interpreted. “Everyone has been working there for a while, a lot of the management that have been there a while have also rubbed elbows with the staff. there’s a lot of appreciation and mutual respect.”
But in March, as the pandemic began, Layune was laid off as the hotel furloughed the majority of its 200 workers. Since then, she’s been receiving unemployment benefits — about $350 a week, with an additional $600 a week from the federal stimulus package.
But by the end of this month, that $600 will stop, and Layune and her family are concerned about what they’ll need to do next.
“If those $600 come to an end, it’s hard to live off of an income of $300 or something like that. It’s going to be very tight to stretch that dollar,” Layune said.
She added that her husband will be losing his job in mid-August, as the cabinet company he’s worked for for 30 years is closing.
“It’s a help for all of us.” Layune said. “This is the greatest nation in the world and the richest one, according to our president, so it’s sad to see a lot of the people that live in this country suffering like this.”
Layune is not alone. The Center for Workers’ Rights in Sacramento has been fielding hundreds of calls from people in a similar position.They’re worried about making ends meet when the federal unemployment benefits end.
“Those who are most impacted by the extra $600 are the low wage workers. Their weekly benefit amount based on their prior earnings is the lowest, so it has the greatest impact on them,” director of the center Daniela Urban said. “So they might be receiving between 40 and $150 in regular weekly unemployment benefits with the 600 is added on the top.”
About 13% of Sacramento’s workers are still unemployed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and many unions and workers rights advocacy groups report that the extra $600 given a week has really helped particularly low wage workers to keep families housed and fed.
Till von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor and faculty director of the California Policy Lab, says the $600 boost “made a huge difference” in helping millions of people stay afloat since March.
His research shows nearly half of California workers relying solely on the payments would fall under the federal poverty line when unemployment benefits return to normal and are capped at $450. The median unemployment payment is closer to $340.
“In a state like California, those benefits don’t get you very far,” he said.
Chris Hoene with the California Budget and Policy Center says the loss of expanded benefits will only exacerbate the problems of those already hit hardest by the virus: “People who were already low wage workers, who already lost hours, who already lost income, and who are more likely to be people of color — black, Latinx — [and] women.”
While Congress is still negotiating over the future of expanded unemployment benefits, Hoene says a common Republican argument that many people are refusing to return to work because they make more on unemployment is “ridiculous.”
“There’s no work for them to go back to” especially with a new round of economic shutdowns across most of California, he said. “That’s why we had to increase unemployment insurance benefits in the first place.”
As part of a $100 billion stimulus package unveiled this week, Democratic legislators proposed the state step in to fill the $600-per-week gap if Congress does not extend the current benefits. The package also proposes extending unemployment benefits to undocumented workers.
But the proposal is still not yet in bill form and could take weeks to maneuver through the Legislature — far too long for workers like Enriqueta Layune at the Citizen Hotel.
Layune plans to call her old employer to ask if they’ll be bringing any housekeepers back to work in August. She is hesitant to leave her job to take work elsewhere, because she’s older with pre-existing health conditions and her current job is unionized.
She said she will also be looking into farmwork as another option, something she had done 30 years ago when she first immigrated to the United States from Mexico, but something she’s reluctant to return to.
Amanda Layune said her mother-in-law going to work in the fields is “like going 10 steps back”
“She’d be losing not only benefits, the protection from the union, she’d be working way longer hours, a harder job,” Amanda explained. “And it’s saddening, because obviously you want your family to prosper and build something, that’s why a lot of people come to this country.”
Unions and advocates say it could be at least mid-August before another federal stimulus plan is passed, which means workers like Enriqueta Layune and her family may have a tough few weeks ahead.
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