The impending cut in benefits reveals a Massachusetts economy that, now more than ever, is a picture of extremes between the haves and have-nots, an economy that breaks racial lines and prevents low-wage workers from rising through the ranks. The pandemic has sharpened people’s desire to improve their lives by moving away from dead-end jobs, but long-standing barriers are once again holding back low-wage workers, just as they are on the verge of losing the only safety net. security they have.
Many of those on the sidelines work in still struggling service industries, including hotels with empty rooms, restaurants, and cleaning companies that cater to office workers still working from home. Daycare closures have made it difficult for parents to do their jobs, as has the increased use of technology for virtual job fairs and online applications, especially for immigrants with limited English skills.
Additionally, the pandemic has prompted some unemployed people to reconsider returning to low-paying public service jobs that could put their families at risk as the highly contagious Delta variant rages on. Some of these jobs pay just enough to lose their MassHealth medical benefits, but not enough to live on.
“Reopening the lower end of this economy is hell,” said John Drew, chief executive of Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty agency that itself can’t find enough childminders. to equip all of its Head Start classrooms. For unemployed people who have used the time and benefits to pursue a new career, Drew said, the mindset seems to be, “Maybe I can do better than go back to this lousy job that I had. “
The vast majority of the country’s unemployed will lose their extra income of three temporary federal programs that in Massachusetts expire Sept. 4: extended benefits for the long-term unemployed, special aid for gig economy workers, and a weekly supplement of $ 300.
Many of those affected in Massachusetts will be people of color, who have already suffered disproportionately during the pandemic; the unemployment rate in the state over the past 12 months for whites is 6.3%, but 9.8% for blacks and 11.8% for latinos.
Such high rates for people of color would be considered a “national emergency” if they applied to the general population, according to Andrew Stettner, a senior researcher at the Century Foundation who has closely studied unemployment.
When the pandemic hit, Kamal Elkarfa was driving for Uber and installing surveillance cameras. With a home baby in Everett born with breathing problems, Elkarfa felt he had no choice but to stop working. Helped by unemployment checks, as well as free child care and groceries from the federal nutrition program, SNAP, Elkarfa and his wife, Zainab Hmito, began taking online classes at the Bunker Hill Community. College – Elkarfa pursuing a certificate in web development and Hmito taking the course prerequisites for a nursing degree.
The couple, originally from Morocco, were looking for a job to compensate for the loss of $ 600 per week in unemployment benefits. But the plan is for Elkarfa to finish her last two classes and find something better.
The couple decided ‘let’s use this time, let’s go back to school,’ said Hmito, 38, who worked at Dunkin ‘Donuts. before the birth of their second child. “Once it’s over, we can get better jobs with financial stability, and maybe it comes with extra time to spend with the kids instead of working two shifts making coffee and sandwiches. .
Massachusetts has the sixth highest number of unemployed people expected to lose their benefits, according to the Century Foundation. And, in line with a national trend, it is the low end that is hit the hardest. Employment rates for people in Massachusetts earning below the national median salary – about $ 37,000 per year – have fallen 11.1% from just before the pandemic, when they Pink 2.6 percent for those earning above the median, according to Opportunity perspectives, a research organization of Harvard University.
There’s no shortage of jobs: more than 237,000 vacancies in Massachusetts, according to the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The agency recently hosted a week-long virtual job fair – the largest in state history – and plans to use federal COVID relief money to retrain 52,000 people.
With unemployment below the national level at 4.9% and high immunization levels, Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta said in a recent briefing that overall, Massachusetts’ economy is in a good position. relatively good, but she recognized that getting people back to work would be a long process.
The increased use of technology to train and hire workers, and the lack of assistance for non-English speakers to access this technology, is a major concern, said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.
“I think the digital divide is going to continue to be a problem,” she said.
At the same time, more and more people want jobs that can be done from home, said Caroline Koty, senior mobility mentor at the Boston Poverty Alleviation Association Economic Mobility Pathways. But not everyone has the experience to do it. Koty is currently working with 15 households, five of which will soon be completely cut off from unemployment benefits, several of them headed by single mothers who worked in hospitals, nail salons, restaurants and security jobs.
“It’s so competitive,” Koty said. “Everyone in the world wants remote job opportunities right now. “
Even people with years of experience and advanced degrees are struggling. Linda Eknoian, a 50-year-old former federal government entrepreneur in Boston who was laid off in December, has a master’s degree but is frustrated by the lack of response to her job applications.
“I think it has a lot to do with age,” Eknoian said, who will lose $ 300 per week after the deadline but is still eligible for regular unemployment.
Meanwhile, some frustrated employers are hoping that expiring benefits will solve their labor shortages.
South Boston’s Amrheins Restaurant recently posted a Remark at his door asking customers to be patient as he battles staff shortages: “Unfortunately, because of government handouts, no one wants to work anymore.
Neil Abramson, owner of Cutie Patuties and Cutiques consignment stores and a warehouse in Leominster, recently hired a few people, including several who were previously working in education and health care and were tired of the “mad rush”, and a woman who was fired from a nursing home for refusing to be vaccinated. But he still has to close a store earlier each day due to understaffing.
As September 4 approaches, however, he sees more interest: he posted advertisements for two jobs and received 16 applications in the first 18 hours; in July, similar publications received only 12 applications in an entire month.
But Abramson is picky – and not interested in hiring someone who “is willing to stay home just to collect the check,” noting that “these people usually don’t make great workers.”
Employers generally prefer to hire people who are still working; thus, those who have been unemployed since the start of the pandemic, by choice or not, may be less attractive to recruiters.
Plus, just because benefits disappear doesn’t necessarily mean that the unemployed will flood the labor market, studies have shown. Arindrajit Dubé, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that in 12 states that ended UI in June, the number of people in paid employment actually declined by about 1.4% at the start. July.
The labor shortage may have less to do with extended benefits than the large number of employers trying to hire workers at the same time, said Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School of the ‘University of Pennsylvania. That, and the widespread fears about the virus, are what make the current situation unusual, he said.
Improved unemployment benefits have also made job seekers more demanding. “It just means people are not that desperate,” he said.
But now that that extra income is disappearing, some people are starting to feel that way.
Delmy Martinez, 36, who lost his job in downtown Boston’s cleaning offices at the start of the pandemic, has just found out that his $ 460-a-week unemployment check is ending. “That’s why I think I always have a headache,” she said, speaking in Spanish through a translator.
Her husband is still working on the parquet floor, but the loss of his benefits means that Martinez may not be able to pay his cell phone bill or buy rheumatoid arthritis medicine for his mother in Guatemala. . Martinez sought employment in restaurants and a tortilla factory, but still hopes to return to her job as a housekeeper, which allowed her to work nights while her husband stayed home with their children in Revere.
She has earned more from unemployment than she earned from working, but she fears that being out of work for so long will hurt her claim for political asylum.
“I don’t want to sound like a burden on the state,” she said.
Ishwar Lamichhane applied for over 300 jobs with no results even after taking computer courses to expand his options. Lamichhane, 46, from Nepal, was deputy director of Out of Town News in Harvard Square for 11 years when it closed in fall 2019, and has been looking for work ever since, mainly in IT customer service and technical support. It has been a frustrating experience. Lamichhane said he saw entry-level entrepreneurial positions that still required years of experience and found so few opportunities at the recent state career fair that he considered the just like a “mirage”.
He and his wife, who have returned to work part-time at a spa in Newton, are on the verge of being “abandoned” by the government when their unemployment benefits run out, Lamichhane said. If he can’t find a job soon, Lamichhane isn’t sure how he’s going to pay off the mortgage on their house in Medford.
“Only God knows,” he said.