The extra unemployment relief money that has helped hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans weather the pandemic expires on Friday.
Democrats in Congress are arguing for an extension of the $600 weekly payments. Meanwhile, Republicans are advocating for a scale-back. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled the HEALS Act earlier this week, which proposes reducing the federal government’s flat rate subsidies to $200 per week until October.
After that, the aid would be based on workers’ previous wages. At most, they could get 70% — but many middle-class earners would receive a smaller portion.
Anyone making more than $58,000 per year would feel the pinch. Those used to grossing more than $1,100 per week would max out at $775 under the HEALS Act because of caps on both federal and state portions. Tennessee provides a max contribution of $275, which ranks low nationwide.
Republican lawmakers have said the current aid needs to be reduced because it discourages people from looking for work.
Melissa Cherry was furloughed and then laid off from her Nashville hotel job starting in March. She disagrees with the idea that it’s the money that’s keeping people from working.
“There’s no job market to speak of,” she says. “Unless they’re talking about me working as a delivery person in a gig economy that’s been created [to] make rich people more comfortable with — again — no benefits, no structure, no stability. There’s no way that any person should be able to look at someone else and say, ‘go get a job’ right now.”
With federal assistance up in the air, more than 240,000 Tennesseans are still relying on unemployment.
Nearly 20,000 people newly applied for it last week. If nothing is passed at the federal level, Tennesseans could see their recent unemployment payments plummet by more than two-thirds.