ROCKLAND — The federal pandemic unemployment benefit program that provided a lifeline to millions of people for more than a year expired over the Labor Day weekend.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, there were 715 Knox County residents receiving the pandemic jobless benefits as of July.

“The expiration of federal pandemic unemployment benefits is an utter disaster for Mainers who are still unemployed and struggling due to the pandemic,” Maine AFL-CIO Communications Director Andy O’Brien said in a Labor Day statement, “The people whom we assist will now be unable to pay mortgages, rent, vehicle payments and more.”

The labor organization spokesman said the end of pandemic benefits coincided with the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the federal eviction moratorium, which he said “will force Mainers onto the streets in the middle of a pandemic that is far from over. Cutting their lifeline when they need it most will destabilize families and take away recipients’ ability to travel to work because they won’t be able to make vehicle payments.”

The pandemic unemployment program provided an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits to claimants in addition to providing unemployment benefits to workers who previously did not qualify such as freelancers, independent contractors and other self-employed workers.

The end of the program occurs as the unemployment rate continues to fall. The July unemployment rate for Knox County was 4.3%, down from 7.7% in July 2020 and nearly one third of the pandemic peak of 11% in April 2020. The program also ends as businesses continue to advertise for workers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for an end to the benefits in May.

The July 2021 unemployment rate in Knox County, however, is still more than twice the pre-pandemic July 2019 rate of 2.1%.

O’Brien said too often the public doesn’t get a full picture of the people receiving unemployment and cast judgements based on anecdotes, hearsay and the number of help wanted signs at restaurants and other businesses.

“A large number of people we assist are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. They very much want to work because collecting unemployment hurts their pride and they can’t afford to retire. But they send out countless job applications and never hear a word back, which they suspect is likely due to their age.

“Many of these people also have serious health conditions that prevent them from lifting heavy objects, being on their feet all day or in jobs that could potentially expose them to COVID-19. They want to work, but they don’t want to die either. Many of them have also applied at the same businesses posting help wanted signs, but they can’t hired. At the same time, many of these jobs are part time, low-paying and don’t keep up with the soaring costs of housing, health care and other basic necessities,” he said.

According to the Washington Post, at heart, there is a massive reallocation underway in the economy that’s triggering a great reassessment of work in the U.S. from both the employer and employee perspectives. According to the article published over the weekend, workers are shifting where they want to work — and how.

For some, this is a personal choice. The pandemic and all of the anxieties, lockdowns and time at home have changed people. Some want to work remotely forever. Others want to spend more time with family. Others want a more flexible or more meaningful career path. It’s the “you only live once” mentality on steroids. Meanwhile, companies are beefing up automation and redoing entire supply chains and office setups.

“Many mothers with young children are struggling to find affordable child care,” O’Brien said.

“Taking away their benefits will make it even harder for them to get back on their feet. Since the pandemic began, about 175 child providers in the state (about 10%) permanently closed and we need to ensure working families have childcare to allow them to maintain a steady income.

“With the surge of the Delta variant, many parents are anxious that their children’s schools will be forced to do hybrid/online learning again or be forced to quarantine and the parents will have no choice but to leave their jobs to care for their children without a financial base of support,” he said.

O’Brien said there’s a myth that cutting off unemployment benefits will force people back into the workforce.
Recent studies show that states that cut off pandemic unemployment benefits early did not see a great surge in people going back to work.
O’Brien said as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise and recent job numbers show, “we’re not out of the woods yet.”