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Unemployment benefits expire for a million people in Pa. and N.J. as Trump resists signing relief bill

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, said on Fox News Sunday that if Trump fails to sign the package, he’ll be “remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior.”

Signs reading "Vacant. Nothing of any value onsite" hang in empty retail space near South 19th and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Signs reading "Vacant. Nothing of any value onsite" hang in empty retail space near South 19th and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia on Sunday.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

About a million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey woke up Sunday to see their unemployment benefits expired as the president resists signing pandemic relief legislation Congress passed last week, throwing the economic stimulus and Americans’ personal finances into uncertainty.

Jobless benefits for more than 10 million workers ended Saturday night as President Trump continued to rail against a $900 billion bipartisan bill that members of his administration helped negotiate, demanding Congress increase direct payment checks to individuals to $2,000 from $600.

“Increase payments to the people, get rid of the ‘pork,’” the president tweeted from his Florida resort early Sunday, six days after both chambers approved the measures. Leading congressional Republicans have roundly rejected $2,000 direct payments, a figure Democrats this week rallied behind.

Through Saturday, more than half a million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey each were set to lose some or all of their unemployment benefits, state officials said, and would not be able to file claims this week under those programs, which were established in the spring as part of the CARES Act, the initial federal pandemic rescue package.

Wendy Hartigan, a 65-year-old wedding planner living in Montgomeryville, said this year was “hell” for her and she’s worried a lapse in unemployment compensation could result in homelessness. She’s currently living in a residential hotel, she said, and scraping by on social security and unemployment benefits.

“If something doesn’t happen, I’m going to be on the street,” she said. “I can’t survive without this unemployment. I just can’t.” She called Trump’s refusal to sign the bill so far a “national disgrace,” saying: “how dare he do this to the American people?”

One of the expiring programs, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, extended benefits to freelancers, gig workers, part-time employees, and others not typically eligible for unemployment compensation. A second, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, funded 13 additional weeks of unemployment compensation for those whose benefits were exhausted, which typically happens after 26 weeks of assistance.

The stimulus deal passed last week also provided funding for a $300-per-week unemployment supplement. Because states can’t pay partial weeks but the supplement still expires in mid-March, the lapse due to the president’s delay means that benefit has already been effectively cut from 11 weeks to 10.

Trump could in the coming days sign the legislation, veto it, or do nothing — the latter is a “pocket veto” and would require Congress vote again on the package in the new year. In addition to the lapsed benefits and expired relief programs, a government shutdown looms Tuesday if Trump does not sign the legislation.

Pennsylvania officials said even if the president signs the legislation, it could still be “several weeks” before claimants see the benefits. The state is awaiting implementation guidance from the federal Department of Labor, which can’t issue it until the legislation is signed into law.

Jennifer Berrier, the acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, urged the claimants whose benefits expired Saturday to seek other resources they may qualify for, including through Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food banks, and local housing assistance.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly urged the federal government to extend the CARES Act, including the PUA. The state has already paid out some $6.8 billion through the program.

New Jersey officials also warned of an implementation delay that could impact roughly half a million claimants, with Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo saying in a statement “these benefits won’t be seen immediately.”

» READ MORE: Jobless workers avoid busy signals at the Pa. unemployment office thanks to this app

Advocates, officials, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle urged the president to sign the legislation, with retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, saying on Fox News Sunday that if Trump fails to sign the package, he’ll be “remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior.”

Toomey, who took issue with parts of the government funding legislation and then voted in favor of it, said “time’s running out” and Trump should sign the bill, then make his case later for larger stimulus checks to individuals if he so desires.

“The COVID relief measures are really, really important,” Toomey said, noting both the unemployment benefits and the extension of the Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable loans to small businesses. “We’ve got a bill right now that his administration helped negotiate. I think we oughta get that done.”

President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement Trump’s refusal to sign the legislation thus far amounts to an “abdication of responsibility” and could put millions in danger of eviction as a federal moratorium also expires in less than a week.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat whose district is among the poorest in the commonwealth, said the vast majority of the workload his district office is doing this year is related to helping constituents navigate the unemployment system and assisting independent contractors in obtaining benefits through the PUA.

He said the lapse in benefits and delay in direct checks could have a devastating impact on his constituents, many of whom have months’ worth of bills piling up and may face eviction in what he called a “multi-layered crisis” dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We have people literally crying, saying ‘What’s happening with this bill? Am I going to get a payment or not?’” he said. “If you’re just trying to pay the bills and feed your kids, this political gamesmanship makes no sense.”

For some families, the lapse is causing uncertainty and frustration. Will Smith, a 55-year-old father of two who lives in Cinnaminson, Burlington County, was laid off from his management job in custom metal work when employees went remote earlier this year and his position was eliminated.

He’s collected unemployment since June, living on a strict budget and struggling to land a new job that covers the costs of his bills. The program that would have extended his benefits longer than they typically last expired this weekend.

“Just being out of work is stressful,” he said, “and seeing Congress not getting along and then the president not signing. ... This should have been done months ago. It’s just scary for my family.”