Returning to work is not easy for some who have lost their jobs to COVID

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Karen Miller wants to work.

Ideally, the 65-year-old will return to her old job digitizing government documents for Data Dimensions in Janesville, Wisconsin. But she can’t. The company fired her in March 2020 when COVID-19 struck and later laid off more than 100 employees after she lost a contract.

As required by the state, Miller has been “looking for work” at least four times a week since May in order to continue receiving the state’s highest level of unemployment benefits: $ 370 per week plus whatever the federal government intervenes. She would look for jobs regardless of the regulations. she said, although heart disease limits her options.

However, she said that entering her criteria into the job search only returns offers for jobs she cannot do, including physically demanding warehouse and delivery jobs and positions for occupations that require a license that she lacks.

The search yielded a few clues and interviews, but no jobs. She suspects that her age has something to do with it.

In the earlier months of the pandemic, Wisconsin lawmakers by and large championed suddenly unemployed workers like Miller – even when Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for an unemployment insurance system drowned in a deluge of claims.

When the Department of Workforce Development struggled to process applications last year, Miller waited 11 weeks for her first unemployment check. This forced them to spend their savings and tap into social security early on – and permanently reduce their monthly payments.

But few stories like Miller’s are circulating in media coverage of the late pandemic economy – as vaccinations allow businesses to reopen and their frantic search for workers is in the spotlight.

More than two dozen states prematurely ended a federal program that adds $ 300 to weekly unemployment checks to help recipients weather unemployment during the pandemic. Legislators in these states, and some business owners, claim that the additional benefits due to phase out nationwide as early as September are taking away the motivation for people to look for work.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature is also seeking an early end to the additional payments, with convention spokesman Robin Vos calling the program a “deterrent to work” causing “mischief” among the unemployed. Legislators approved a bill to end the program, but Evers vetoed it, saying proponents lacked evidence that it would alleviate labor shortages.

Miller overhears politicians changing their descriptions of the unemployed.

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(Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

“We’re not a bunch of lazy people,” she said. “We were workers who lost our jobs and are now being asked to do things we have no experience of.”

Miller was one of 10 people who spoke to WPR and Wisconsin Watch about rebuilding their lives after losing their jobs during the pandemic. Thirteen others contacted WPR’s WHYsconsin project with questions about access to overdue unemployment benefits and reported struggles for work; they either did not respond to inquiries or refused to be interviewed because they still stigmatized the unemployed.

The interviews illustrate persistent challenges and difficult choices in reintegration into work. Some are still waiting for the state to pay unemployment benefits since the earliest days of the pandemic.

While waiting for unemployment benefits last year, Miller feared she would lose the Rockford, Illinois home that she shares with her 38-year-old son and 18-year-old grandson.

Miller and her son previously worked across the border in Janesville. So they turned to the Wisconsin DWD, which processes jobless claims after the pandemic left both of them unemployed. But Miller and her son – who waited 13 weeks for his compensation – were among the thousands who waited months or more for DWD.

Concerned about her mortgage, Miller filed for a federal pandemic program that allowed most homeowners to defer payments for up to 18 months with no penalty – just in case they needed it. Instead, the Millers stayed up to date on the mortgage by using up their $ 10,000 savings while waiting for unemployment benefits.

Miller also saved about $ 120 a month in car payments by selling her 2014 Kia ​​Soul back to the dealership and another, less fancy Soul lease. But money remained tight when she turned 65 in September, even after receiving unemployment benefits. So she guessed social security.

Every bit of income has helped the family make ends meet, including government unemployment benefits and stimulus payments. These and other guidelines – including federal and state eviction moratoriums – have benefited Americans deeply from the pandemic. Analysis of data from the University of Michigan’s US Census Bureau found that federal pandemic aid has helped large swaths of Americans stave off hunger, anxiety, and depression.

working woman

U.S. employers created 850,000 jobs in June, and many came with higher wages, particularly in the leisure and hospitality sectors. Still, the country has 6.8 million fewer jobs compared to February 2020, before the pandemic crippled much of the economy.

“We’re reaching the point where vaccinations are widespread and people are comfortable going out into the world again,” said Julia Raifman, assistant professor at Boston University and lead investigator on the COVID-19 US State Policy Database. “I think it’s really important for people (with pandemic support) to hold out until they can connect to jobs that are good over the long term.”

Economists have mixed views on whether the recent federal unemployment benefits are a significant barrier to work. And research by Indeed Hiring Lab found that last May, job searches – as measured by clicks on job postings – increased temporarily and only slightly in states that announced premature endings. It cites evidence that job hunting has returned to normal on the eighth day after the announcements.

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Meanwhile, search activity has increased in some states that opted out of extended benefits in June and declined in others – in some cases below national trends, Indeed reported in late June.

After Jay Baukin, 63, lost two months of work at the beginning of the pandemic, Goodwill hired him back to his part-time position in June 2020, but it took the DWD more than a year to provide unemployment benefits. Baukin, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident 18 years ago, is partly dependent on the benefits of the federal social insurance disability insurance. But the monthly checks of roughly $ 1,500 don’t completely cover his bills in Dane County. Baukin described his wages from a 24-hour week as “essential” for survival.

“Otherwise I’d be on the corner with a sign that said, ‘I work for food,'” he said.

Unlike most states, Wisconsin bans federally disabled workers from receiving regular unemployment benefits, and the DWD first extended that ban to PUAs before reversing course last summer. Baukin spent a year seeking this compensation.

In May 2021, a state administration judge finally ruled in his favor, but Baukin says it took more than a month to see aid; He was told that the DWD had not loaded the judge’s recordings into his outdated computer system, which increased the waiting time. He stopped checking his online portal with the department out of frustration, so it was two weeks before he realized he had been paid.

Pierre Young, 51, of Milwaukee struggles to pay rent after losing his part-time job at the warehouse and being denied unemployment benefits. His state disability status torpedoed his regular entitlement, and he lost the PUA after being told he hadn’t filed his payrolls quickly enough. He appealed the decision but sold his two trucks to pay bills while he waited. The 1998 Chevy Tahoe and 2002 Dodge Ram pickup – “a bat with a heater” – fetched about $ 800 together.

But Young’s newfound lack of transportation limits his job opportunities and makes it difficult to get an interview at all, he said. He would love to take a 12 week construction job he found, but getting to the construction site in Iowa was impossible.

(Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP via Getty Images)

A conviction for a crime on his file – a barrier to many Wisconsinites – will likely further harm his search, Young said, but “my lack of a vehicle is really what gets me in a box.”

“I have to have a roof over my head,” he added. “So I had no choice but to sell the vehicle, you know?”

Across the border in Rockford, Miller said she would take any job she can do.

“I would be willing to work only for the minimum wage,” Miller said. “I have my social security. But I have to supplement it. It is not enough for a living.”

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Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit news agency, made this article available to The Associated Press in collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.

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