Missourians scramble for work as pandemic unemployment benefits end

“I JUST pulled myself out of homelessness,” Courtney Edwards, of Springfield, wrote in a Facebook post on June 11. “There goes that.”

Saturday marked the end of federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits for Missourians. For some, and especially those in industries that have yet to fully recover from the pandemic, the cutoff feels premature. The decision to end benefits will directly impact approximately 56,000 Missouri residents, the Associated Press reports.

Edwards, 41, has experience including retail, food service, a call center and factory work. She attended college to study communications but did not receive a degree. After a period of homelessness, she was able to rent a room for $400 a month, but now she’s afraid she won’t be able to afford it.

Edwards was trying to save up for an apartment of her own, but she’s diabetic and almost had to amputate a foot last year because of it. She’s uninsured, and her insulin costs $700 per month.

“If I’m not working full time, how am I paying for that, is it going to be a life and death thing?” she said. “I have to wonder, am I going to lose my foot?”

Edwards’ diabetes means she will have to keep weight off her bad foot at any job she works, and she said she has struggled to find an employer in her field of experience that can accommodate that.

Gov. Mike Parson, pictured during a December press conference, recently cut off supplemental unemployment benefits in the state, citing a labor shortage. | Via Missouri Governor’s Office

On May 11, Gov. Mike Parson announced a June 12 cutoff for all pandemic-related unemployment aid. Parson said such programs have contributed to the statewide labor shortage.

“While these benefits provided supplementary financial assistance during the height of COVID-19, they were intended to be temporary, and their continuation has instead worsened the workforce issues we are facing,” Parson said in a news release. It’s time that we end these programs that have ultimately incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.”

The federal aid programs in place provide an additional $300 per week and extend benefits to self-employed, freelance and contracted workers, among other benefits. These programs are set to continue until Labor Day in states that have not issued an earlier cutoff as Missouri has. Alaska, Iowa and Mississippi also exited the programs June 12, ahead of 21 other states that will also end benefits at different points throughout June and early July, according to CNBC.

Joblessness to housing insecurity

“Going forward, I have zero income,” said Robin Wirt, a 58-year-old resident of O’Fallon with experience managing massage and spa locations. Wirt is a single mother, and for the 15 years leading up to the pandemic she worked 60 hours per week in addition to two side gigs.

Robin Wirt

Wirt was supposed to switch jobs in March 2020, but her new job was cut before she could start, and she hasn’t been able to find anything else. She said her biggest obstacle has been over-qualification and age — and now she faces housing insecurity.

“I get to be living in my car here, probably in about 13 days,” Wirt said Monday.

Missouri is experiencing a labor shortage, and unemployment rates around the state are generally low — while not quite at pre-pandemic levels, unemployment has hovered just above 4% in recent months. Some businesses are offering sign-on bonuses and other benefits to entice new employees. One trucking company is offering a $9,000 bonus to new drivers in the Kansas City area, and others are bumping up starting wages.

Nevertheless, some Missourians are struggling to find a job that works with their experience and needs. On top of that, some industries haven’t recovered from the pandemic as much as others, challenging workers in niche markets.

‘The timing is the worst’

The end of unemployment benefits for self-employed professionals is also having its effects, as some are still waiting for their industry to see pre-pandemic conditions. The federal programs allowed freelancing, self-employed or part-time workers to receive benefits where they normally would not, according to the Department of Labor.

“The timing is the worst,” said Mary Cameron, a self-employed child care provider in Ballwin. Since many parents are still working from home, she’s seen far less demand for child care.

“I have new children starting at the end of July, and then more starting in August,” she said. “But during this pandemic … it’s hit me hard.”

Cameron has been looking for jobs in other industries that she’s worked in, including receptionist positions and more, but with no luck.

“I’m 58 years old, you know,” Cameron said. “I’ve done child care for the past 16 years. No one’s gonna hire me.”

Missourians like Cameron, finding industries still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and needing to pivot due to the aid cutoff, are being met with discouraging employment options as they scramble to adjust their budget.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to make ends meet, honestly,” said Emily Cropper, a 44-year-old resident of St. Robert, southwest of Rolla, with experience in food service. Cropper has some college education, but no degree, and debilitating back pain and lack of transportation have been obstacles in finding a job that’s a good fit.

“If (the benefits) had kept going until September … we would have been OK,” Cropper said. “I had everything pretty much budgeted out.”

“It’s not that people don’t want to work,” Cropper said. “It’s that they need more help.”

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