I have been receiving the $600 weekly federal unemployment insurance benefit since I was laid off in April.

The first thing you need to know is that it isn’t actually $600. Taxes are taken out of it every week before it hits my bank account, just like a paycheck. So I receive $510 every week, plus $378 in state benefits. Now, I’m a lot luckier than most people – when I lost my job, I had savings in the bank and I was never in danger of losing housing, because I live with my mom, and she says that as long as she has a roof over her head, her kids have a roof over theirs. (I know it’s not a competition, but my mom is the best mom.)

But I did have several large, unexpected expenditures recently because my dog had two veterinary emergencies in two weeks – the first time because she had what I can only describe as “DEFCON 1-level constipation,” and the second time because she ate an antidepressant that fell on the floor. Janey is fine now. And because of the unemployment insurance, I was able to get her immediate treatment at the Hollis Animal Clinic – which, in addition to being the best place to take your pet, can keep people employed thanks to my dog being uncontrollably mischievous.

That $600-aka-$510 benefit expired last week. The federal government, specifically the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, has not expanded it. Negotiations are ongoing, and it looks like Republicans will cut the benefit, if they don’t just let it stay dead. Their big issue seems to be that people won’t try to go get new jobs because the $600 allows them to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. In fact, our own Susan Collins tweeted that she has a bill “compensating (people) for lost wages in a way that doesn’t create a disincentive to return to work.”

Let me be crystal clear: The $600-aka-$510 is not a disincentive to going out and getting another job. The contagious and potentially deadly virus circulating in our communities is the disincentive to going out and getting a new job. I knew senators were all rich, but I didn’t realize they were so rich they lost touch with reality.

I’m not afraid of hard work. I worked 60-hour weeks for well over a year at two jobs. If I had been laid off because of an issue that affected only my own employer, I would already have a new job by now. I am more than willing to bust my butt at Target or Hannaford for $12 or $13 an hour. The past few months have been the longest length of time I have been unemployed since I started working for pay at the age of 17.

But here’s the thing that you cannot ignore: I was laid off because of a global pandemic. There is no vaccine for COVID-19, and, as I mentioned, I live with my mother. She is in her 50s and gets walloped extra hard every winter by bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses. I will not risk her health, or the health of my sister and roommate who also live in my house.

The majority of jobs available right now are jobs that involve a great deal of contact with other human beings. I went on JobsinMaine.com (a good local resource, by the way) to see what job openings are available in a 25-mile radius of my home. Many are jobs that require particular degrees or training that I don’t have (mostly medical professionals such as nurses and phlebotomists). Other than that, what I see are employers looking for: behavioral health professionals, clinicians, assembly-line workers, janitors, cashiers, home health aides, nursing home aides. All great options that I could pretty easily slide into, except for the fact that we are currently dealing with a pandemic that is spread by respiratory droplets.

The beefed-up unemployment benefits have allowed a lot of folks to socially distance and isolate themselves at home to avoid coronavirus (as well as, you know, spend money on stuff to make the economy function). I will continue to do so for as long as possible. But most people aren’t as lucky as I am.

The median rent in Maine is $800 per month. The average mortgage payment: about $1,300. With savings spent and foreclosures and evictions looming, Mainers will have no other choice but to take those close-quarter jobs or starve.

Financial pressure and a complete lack of responsibility and compassion from our own government will mean people step up to become cashiers, janitors, home health aides, for 13 bucks an hour. And the virus will keep circulating. Cases will go up. And more Mainers will die.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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