Optician Ali Nelson sent the final few orders of eyeglasses to clients last week before her Washington D.C.-based store closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Without a paycheck indefinitely, Nelson is one of potentially tens of millions of other Americans whose livelihoods are now in doubt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday is set to offer the clearest evidence yet of the coronavirus’s devastating impact on the economy.
Behind the numbers, which are expected to hit a new record, are worried workers like Nelson.
She has already filed to receive unemployment benefits, a relatively painless process that took minutes online. But Nelson is unsure of how much money she might receive and worries how she’ll support a family of six on the amount.
The maximum offered in the District of Columbia – just about $450 a week – won’t be enough to cover her rent in Fairfax County, Virginia, much less health insurance, groceries and utilities.
“This is not sustainable,” said Nelson, 52, the primary breadwinner in her household, which includes her veteran husband who is in school and two working kids.
Many of the millions of Americans bracing for life on unemployment benefits are doing so for the first time in their lives as retail stores, movie theaters, restaurants and other small business shut their doors amid the outbreak.
Congress is finalizing a stimulus bill that would boost unemployment payments by $600 a week for people affected by the virus. It could also expand access to the program for self-employed workers and freelancers, who are not typically covered by the traditional program.
How much money out-of-work Americans should get remained a stumbling block to the bill passing on Wednesday. Currently, U.S. unemployment benefits usually amount to half of a worker’s previous pay, less than in most other developed countries.
Even if the bill does pass this week, it is not clear when consumers will get cash. The surge in unemployment claims overwhelmed some states and led to processing delays. Payments of $1,200 per low and mid-income adult, promised by the White House, may take the tax agency months to process.
The uncertainty is leaving at least some in this newly-unemployed set of Americans increasingly anxious.
Scott Thomas, 34, lost his job as co-creative director for The Ride, a tour of Manhattan last week. As he jumped through hoops to file for unemployment this week, he said he had put aside his goals to vacation in Las Vegas this summer. “I don’t want to take the financial risk,” he said.