After federal pandemic benefits expire, unemployed Alaskans wonder how they’ll survive on $500 a month

Lisa Seifert is an Anchorage photographer and Airbnb host whose business evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. She was depending on a $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit that expired last month. (Courtesy photo)

When COVID-19 shut down much of the country’s economy earlier this year, Congress threw out-of-work Americans a lifeline: a special, $600-dollar-a-week boost to unemployment benefits.

But that program expired earlier this month, with Democratic and Republican lawmakers blaming each other for their failure to agree on how to extend it to the more than 30 million Americans who qualified. Now Congress is adjourned until September, and tens of thousands of Alaskans are wondering what’s next.

“I’m sitting here, wondering how I’m going to live on $500 a month,” said Lisa Seifert, 58, an Anchorage photographer and Airbnb host who saw her bookings disappear at the start of the pandemic. “That’s where I’m at right now, hoping that they’ll get their act together and do something.”

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There were roughly 52,000 Alaskans who would have qualified for the $600-a-week federal benefits during the last week of July, when those benefits ran out. That represents about 15% of the state’s workforce.

Between the federal and state unemployment programs, Seifert had been receiving about $2,900 a month. She’s now down to $133 a week, she said in an interview last week.

Out-of-work Alaskans could see a $300-a-week boost to their benefits restored through a program that President Donald Trump created through executive action earlier this month. Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is applying to participate, though it hasn’t said when payments could start and there’s only about five weeks of federal money set aside for the program.

Governor aims for $300 boost to UI benefits, half of expired amount

And unlike the $600-a-week benefits authorized by Congress earlier this year, Alaskans must qualify for at least $100 a week in state unemployment insurance in order to receive the new federal payments. That could exclude around 10% of Alaskans claiming unemployment, according to state data.

Alaskans who lost the $600-a-week federal benefits last month said in interviews that they’re feeling apprehensive and disappointed that Congress left Washington, D.C. without taking action.

Lauren Miller is a technical director and production manager for Anchorage concerts and theater productions. (Courtesy photo)

“I feel kind of left in the dark and left out,” said Lauren Miller, 64, who works as a production manager and technical director at Anchorage concerts and theatrical productions. “I’m frustrated and a little angry that I, as a constituent, am being treated with what feels like disregard.”

Miller said she’s also receiving $133 in unemployment benefits, or roughly enough to pay her monthly water bill. She’s now making minimum payments on her credit card bill, which feels “irresponsible,” she said.

In a phone interview Thursday, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was “inexcusable” that Congress had come to a “political impasse” at such a critical time.

“I think we are doing a disservice to the American public by saying, ‘Well, we’ll keep working on this, but we don’t have any answers for you yet,’” Murkowski said. “That’s not helping the person who’s fearful that they’re going to lose their housing. That’s not helpful for those for whom there really is nothing in their refrigerator. That’s not helpful for those who can’t get childcare.”

She added: “This is a disappointing place for us to be, and I am one of 100 and I own some of the fault here.”

Congressional Republicans have been pushing for a short-term extension of the federal unemployment benefits, while Democrats want a broader relief bill that would pay the benefits through January.

Murkowski said one of the sticking points in negotiations is whether the benefits should continue at $600 a week, or something less than that. She said she’s hearing from Alaska business owners who say they can’t find people to re-hire.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“I was at the farmers market last weekend and a small businessman, he’s like, ‘I’m looking for one person, I got eight applications. And of those, seven of them said, ”‘I’m going to wait until the enhanced [unemployment aid] goes away, because right now I’m making more money than you can pay me,’” Murkowski said.

In a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan accused Democratic leaders of not negotiating in “good faith” because of their insistence on maintaining the payments at $600 a week. Spokesman Mike Anderson said Sullivan was not available for an interview; Zack Brown, a spokesman for GOP U.S. Rep. Don Young, did not respond to requests for comment.

Seifert, the Airbnb host and photographer, disputed the idea that the $600 weekly payments were discouraging Alaskans from leaving the unemployment program.

“I love the interaction with people. I love being creative — I want to go back to work,” she said. “But they have to get their handle on the situation in Washington and make a scientific plan instead of doing what they’re doing, which is nothing.”

One economist, Mouhcine Guettabi with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Uniersity of Alaska Anchorage, said he’s skeptical that the federal unemployment benefits were keeping many people out of the workforce.

“The more important question is: Are there 50,000 job vacancies in Alaska? And I think the answer is obviously no,” he said, referring to the number of Alaskans in the unemployment program.

The $600-a-week federal benefits were actually creating jobs in Alaska before they expired, Guettabi added, since the program was adding an estimated $110 million a month into the state’s economy. That amount of spending is associated with roughly 1,000 jobs, he said.

“By every measure, that was a very significant injection into Alaska’s economy, especially in the midst of shutdowns and people not spending money in the same way they used to,” he said. “Removing all of that money from the economy at once is a very significant blow.”

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Nat Herz covers government, politics, environment and COVID-19 for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at nherz@alaskapublic.org.