Unemployed New Yorkers Cling to Fragile Pandemic Safety Net

By , THECITY

Elaine Wong spends time with her daughter, Kimberly, outside their Flushing home after the mother lost her job at the Beekman Hotel. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

(This story was originally published on May 10th, 2020, by THE CITY.)

Emma Craig, who made $200 a night singing in a Soho supper club, found herself navigating the unemployment maze as an independent contractor and negotiating a temporary rent reprieve while waiting weeks for benefits to kick in.

“My landlord is cool, but I’m going to have to pay,” said Craig, 31.

As a union hotel worker, Elaine Wong, had a more straightforward experience getting unemployment. She paid the rent on her family’s Flushing apartment, but at the expense of skipping her $650 car bill.

“I had to pay to have a roof over my head,” said Wong, a 48-year-old married mother of one.

Emmanuel Munoz, a 40-year-old Mexican immigrant who has worked in New York for 15 years, lost his job as a restaurant manager.

He hasn’t received a penny in unemployment insurance or other benefits from the city, state or federal government because he’s not allowed to work on the books. He told his Bronx landlord he couldn’t pay the rent.

“Whatever money I get, it’s because I work,” said Munoz.

‘A Chaotic Situation’

All three New Yorkers lost their jobs in mid March as coronavirus all but paralyzed the city. The crisis is growing in the city and beyond: The U.S. economy shed a record 20.5 million jobs last month, according to figures released Friday.

The trio’s varying challenges underscore the crucial role of New York’s social safety net, which has ramped up dramatically during the economic chaos tracking the COVID-19 spread.

Most important is the unemployment benefit: The state distributed more than $4.6 billion to 1.6 million out-of-work New Yorkers between the middle of March and April 30.

The federal government’s temporary $600 addition to weekly unemployment benefits, which New York has disbursed more quickly than most states, is buoying those with access to the benefit. The federal government sent out federal stimulus checks of $1,200 per person and $500 per dependent to everyone below a certain income threshold.

The city has reduced requirements for applying for and keeping cash assistance and food stamps — and put muscle and money into getting people food. The state put a 90-day moratorium on evictions, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently extended until Aug. 20.

But lower-income workers don’t get as substantial a benefit. And those who don’t qualify for unemployment — including 190,000 undocumented workers — are left to rely on small bits of relief or find new work that could endanger their health.

Meanwhile, summer brings the one-two punch of the ends of the eviction moratorium and the $600 payment, whose expected loss in July “injects uncertainty into a chaotic situation,” said James Parrott, an economist at the New School.

When the two income substitutes disappear, many New Yorkers will be left with bills they can’t pay and unimaginable choices that will reshape the lives they have built here.

Citywide, the unemployment rate could rise as high as 30%, Parrott projects, up from 3.4% in February, with hourly workers bearing the brunt. Falling tax revenue could shrink benefit programs that have never before responded to this kind of need.

“People don’t know if the jobs they got laid off from are ever going to come back,” said  Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy, research and advocacy at the Community Service Society.

‘I Can Tough It Out’

In ordinary times, New York state pays out 50% of earnings to previously employed workers for 26 weeks. This comes from an unemployment trust fund stocked by employers through a percentage of the first $25,000 of each employee’s wages.

While a recently unemployed worker earning $17 an hour for 40 hours a week used to expect a benefit in New York of around $300 after taxes each week, now that person is getting close to $900 because of the pandemic assistance. That’s about one and a half times what they take home when they are working.

The federal pandemic unemployment assistance program also extends benefits to independent contractors, gig workers, self-employed people and others who have lost work because of COVID-19.

But the program came with a confusing rollout that New York navigated better than some, fronting the money before funds arrived from the federal government and updating its application process on April 20, a week earlier than other states.

At first, applicants needed to be rejected for traditional unemployment insurance before they could apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a hurdle that was later removed.

Craig, the singer, said she called the Department of Labor hundreds of times and followed arcane advice shared on Facebook about how to get through.  Since she is a contractor, not an employee, she fell into a group the unemployment system was not set up to process.

While she waited six weeks for her first check, she cut as many monthly expenses as she could and borrowed $200 from her parents.

“I’ve lived here for 10 years,” she said, “I can tough it out. I love what I do, and I can’t do it anywhere else.”

Toughing it out is harder for some New Yorkers than others.

“Low-wage workers in particular have a lack of savings,” said Rankin. “A few weeks means desperate hardship.”

Even before the pandemic, more than half of employed New Yorkers making at or below 200% of the federal poverty level had less than $500 in savings.

Nothing Coming

Among those with little backup are people with no access to unemployment benefits: day laborers and domestic workers, street vendors and car wash workers, manicurists and kitchen staff like Munoz who may not have authorization to work in the U.S.

Even for legal residents, having a part-time job or being a parent with extra expenses means that the benefit, including the extra $600, is not always enough. New York’s minimum benefit is $104 per week and it does not increase for people who have dependents as it does in some nearby states.

Their plight is also a preview of what could happen to a bigger group when the $600 ends and more people start paying rent again. The city has boosted services to deal with gaps.

Some schools opened for free meals in late March. An investment of $170 million is going towards securing, making, and delivering food to those homebound and in need, including older adults.

The state added $25 million to the effort last week, with more than $10 million allocated to New York City. The Food Bank for New York, a nonprofit, said it had distributed an extra two million pounds of food during the first month of the pandemic, even as 40% of its partner pantries shut down for safety reasons.

Some pantries and soup kitchens were seeing a 50% increase in need, said Leslie Gordon, its president and CEO, with some rising as much as 800%. At one agency where 1,000 people used to line up for food, now 5,000 people are coming.

The Coalition for the Homeless has counted an uptick among day laborers, who tend to pay their rent weekly, on the regular routes of its mobile food vans, said Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, who represents the Coalition.

“They’re not sticking around waiting to be evicted,” he said. “Or in the absence of any income they are paying 100% of whatever they have saved to rent so they’re coming out for food because they want to keep the landlord happy.”

Help By Phone

At the Human Resources Administration, New Yorkers can access SNAP food stamps online and new applicants can do interviews by phone.

The department applied for waivers from the state and federal government that allowed it to eliminate interviews when it had enough documentation to process applications, and to make sure clients weren’t penalized for not keeping appointments.

HRA suspended the requirement to reapply for benefits to prevent people who needed to recertify from creating a backlog. And, building off its SNAP app, in four days the agency launched a system that allowed people to apply for cash assistance online and to permit HRA, the Department of Social Services and agency partners to work remotely.

Looking at the trends on their apps from mid-March to late April, there has been a significant increase in need, though the exact percentage is still being calculated.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to see that people aren’t left behind by an affordability problem that’s gotten worse,” said Steven Banks, the Department of Social Services commissioner.

The city’s budget, meanwhile, has a gap of $125 million in its cash assistance programs because of an effective cut to Transitional Aid for Needy Families (TANF).

Yet because the shutdown has caused a drop in people seeking services, especially ones where they would meet caseworkers in person, those who work at the ground level see an enormous flood of need in store.

Zandra Haywood of Homebase, a city-funded program that’s part of the nonprofit BronxWorks and helps New Yorkers find housing after they’ve been in shelters, said she expects to see quadruple the clients this summer, even though not many clients have reached out yet.

Getting By — For Now

For those who were paid as employees, not contractors, and who earned higher wages before the crisis, unemployment benefits have been generous and disbursed quickly.

When the Beekman Hotel opened in the summer of 2016, Wong was the only one of the 24 students interviewed from her English-as-a-second-language program to land a room attendant job there, a union position. By this March 23, she was earning $28 an hour, a wage set to rise to $33.87 at the end of the year.

She last went in on March 17, and was officially laid off five days later. Soon, she was sick with COVID-19 symptoms and felt so unwell she didn’t apply for unemployment benefits immediately.

Still, her benefit left her with enough money — $966 per week after taxes — that she could pay the $1,500 April rent on the Flushing apartment where she lives with her husband, a sushi chef, and 11-year-old daughter. She felt she could not skip it.

“I don’t have anybody here in the U.S.,” she said. “Only my husband and daughter.”

By many measures, Wong is the ideal beneficiary: Her full-time earnings were from an employer who paid into the state’s unemployment trust fund, so her application was processed promptly.

Because she is a member of the New York Hotel Trades Council, she will receive health insurance and care for six months. During her illness, she saw doctors, got daily calls from nurses and paid little for prescription drugs she said helped her recover.

The Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan
The Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Still, like Munoz, Craig, and others, she is rethinking her place in the city she first came to from Malaysia in 2002, working her way up from restaurants to the hotel job.

“If the second wave comes back around September and October,” she said, “I worry that it’s more serious than the first. At that time I don’t think I’d be able to go back to work. And with no more health insurance…I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

When he lost his job, Munoz’ bosses gave him a modest, informal severance.

They recently called with some news: They’re reopening for takeout and delivery. They want him to come back to work — one day a week.

He could use the money as he finds himself these days rethinking his life in New York.

“I have lived here for so many years,” he said. “You live in a city that is so…full of opportunity but you don’t have the tools to really go and do something for yourself.”

This story was funded in part by the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and is part of a national effort to assess state safety systems in the pandemic.

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