Behind the elaborate stage costumes that helped make The Lion King and Aladdin famous is Victoria Olson, a costume maker for theatrical productions for over 40 years.
She worked on Broadway, and since moving to Florida has staged productions in Broward County’s most renowned venues. She lives in Fort Lauderdale.
Now she’s jobless since theaters closed down, supporting herself by state and federal unemployment insurance benefits and groceries from the local food bank.
Olson says she is worried about what may happen to her when the federal benefit of $600 a week is scheduled to end this month. Congress is considering various options as the COVID-19 crisis continues, but the $600 supplement, or another amount, remains uncertain as lawmakers try to broker a deal.
“There’s no ‘going back to work’ for me. No one’s hiring. What am I supposed to do?” said Olson, who is 69 and was working full time before coronavirus spread throughout the United States.
While unemployed, she has been putting her expertise to use by making hundreds of masks for local health-care workers.
Even if she could land a job in a big-box store or retailer, Olson said, she would feel she was risking her life because she has an autoimmune disease that makes her highly vulnerable to the sickening and potentially deadly effects of COVID-19. She is being treated with a medication that also treats cancer.
“My feeling is, if I went to work at a place where they wouldn’t require masks, I’d quit. I’d have to. They don’t pay me enough to die,” Olson said.
The AFL-CIO in Florida provided the names of workers who could be interviewed by the Florida Phoenix, including Olson and Darrell Starks, a jobless builder and painter in Miami.
‘It’s going to crush people’
Starks said workers are scared, particularly because South Florida is one of the most infected regions of the country, according to the U.S Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have been in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida.
The Phoenix caught up with Starks by phone while he was working as a volunteer on remodeling and repair projects at his church.
He said he and others are praying that Congress will extend supplemental unemployment benefits that add $600 a week to their weekly state unemployment benefit of up to $275. The difference based on a four-week month is $1,100 maximum for the state benefit alone and up to $3,500 with the federal supplement.
“In the next few days, are they going to turn their backs on us?” Starks said. “With the $600, it’s a blessing, and it will be sad if it goes away. Who can live on $275 a week? It’s going to crush people. At night, I don’t get proper sleep, wondering what is going to happen.”
Starks, unemployed since March, said he has always worked in the trade-show industry and would love to get back to work, but that industry — dependent on large gatherings — is shut down for the foreseeable future.
Coworkers in his union are hoping pandemic conditions improve by November so they can get to work staging the large, world-famous Art Basel art show in Miami Beach, a lucrative project. But it depends on whether the show organizers think anyone will attend. And at this moment, he said, no one knows.
“The congressmen and senators need to sit down and realize, ‘We’re living comfortably, but working class people are not.’ It’s not going to help the economy for people to lose their homes and their cars and become homeless.”
Starks and Olson support passage of the HEROES Act, another round of coronavirus benefits for a ravaged nation that includes extending the $600 weekly unemployment insurance (UI) supplement.
What will Congress do?
The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, created and passed the act. The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to propose its own relief package that could include a lower supplement or perhaps no supplement at all.
GOP senators, including U.S. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have been quoted saying a supplement of $600 is so generous it discourages workers from accepting jobs.
“It appears most recipients are being paid more on UI than they were when working,” Grassley said in his opening statement at a June 10 congressional hearing on unemployment. “This discourages people from returning to work or taking a new job, delaying the recovery.”
“Recent research published by the University of Chicago estimates more than two-thirds of UI recipients may receive benefits that exceed lost earnings, with more than 20 percent potentially getting double what they used to earn — as long as they don’t work.”
While the oft-cited University of Chicago report says 68 percent of jobless people receiving the $600 supplement bring home more in UI benefits than they previously earned in wages, the researchers were silent on whether the supplement discourages people from seeking jobs.
It says a “fixed benefit” of $600, rather than a benefit proportionate to one’s previous earnings, improved the financial picture “for the poorest unemployed.” Another way to determine the supplement, the authors wrote, is to index a recipient’s unemployment benefit to his or her prior wages. For the poorest unemployed, federal minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, or $300 for a 40-hour week.
The report notes, “We take no stand in this paper on the optimal way to balance these trade-offs.”
William Spriggs, professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist for the AFL-CIO, said the employment supplement is necessary to keep unemployed people injecting money into the economy.
He said the University of Chicago report is widely misconstrued, since recipients are not allowed to decline appropriate job offers; it forfeits their unemployment eligibility.
“I am hoping saner minds will prevail and the supplement gets extended,” Spriggs said. “[Most] Americans believe it should be extended. This is not a partisan issue among the people. It’s a partisan among the politicians, because they have interests to serve.”
Spriggs rejects arguments that workers should be stripped of the $600 weekly supplement in order to push them into a workplace where jobs are still scarce and workplace safety is strictly voluntary on the part of employers.
“It’s not true that people refuse to go back to work,” he said. “The fact is, this is the worst labor market anyone has ever seen. … And there is the fear, ‘If I take this job, it could be dangerous for me and for my family.’”
Business groups weigh in
The Florida Chamber of Commerce stated in June that it could support extending the supplement in a reduced amount if Congress simultaneously adopts laws shielding businesses from liability if workers or customers claim they became infected with coronavirus on the premises.
The Florida affiliate of the National Federation of Independent Businesses opposes extending the unemployment supplement, said President Bill Herrle.
The federation also opposed the adoption of nationwide emergency temporary standards mandating workplace safety practices during the pandemic — standards the AFL-CIO wanted in place before employees go back to work.
The Florida United Businesses Association declined to comment on whether the $600 unemployment supplement should be extended, revised, or eliminated.
But the Small Business for American’s Future organization, based in Washington, D.C., said its surveys of small business owners show support for extending the supplement because it empowers jobless people to continue consuming goods and services that they otherwise could not afford, which helps small businesses.
Frank Knapp Jr., organization co-chair, said small business owners usually are more connected with their individual workers than large companies are. For workers who cannot find safe jobs, he said, the government should continue to generously supplement their unemployment benefits, as well as forgive federal pandemic loans of $150,000 or less to small businesses.
Small Business for America’s Future surveyed 1,500 small business owners nationwide and found that 80 percent think the pandemic will disrupt business operations throughout 2020 and maybe longer; 56 percent support extending enhanced unemployment benefits, 77 percent support government policies requiring masks, and 66 percent say a national plan for opening safely would give businesses a better chance of surviving the pandemic.
“As always, small business owners are very practical,” Knapp said. “They see the need for following science and the need to continue putting money in the pockets of the two-thirds of workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic and have not been rehired.