Additional $600 in unemployment benefits expires this week; Congress still split on extension

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginians receiving unemployment benefits will collect $600 less per week after federal CARES Act funding for the supplement expires on Saturday. Members of Congress representing Virginia are split on whether to extend the support.

The debate comes as the Virginia Employment Commission estimates that more than 650,000 people are receiving these federal payments on top of traditional state benefits.

That number doesn’t include the tens of thousands who are waiting for issues with their claims to be resolved before they can be compensated. VEC Communications Manager Joyce Fogg said this group will receive the $600 per week through backpay if they’re approved after the July 25th deadline. Fogg said they have to keep their claims file active during the adjudication process.

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Tom Bartek has been pushing for unemployment reform since his benefits abruptly stopped in late June. “There is absolutely no transparency with VEC,” said Bartek, who added that he has not been able to get an update on his claim despite daily attempts to reach the agency.

Compounding his frustration and financial anxiety, Bartek said he’ll only be able to collect $378 weekly when his payments resume if Congress doesn’t extend its support.

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That is the maximum a claimant can get on unemployment in Virginia but many get a lot less depending on their previous earnings and work status, according to Fogg. Fogg said the General Assembly would have to pass legislation to increase the range of possible payments, meaning immediate action is in the hands of Congress.

“If you really want to see an economic crisis like one we’ve never seen before–do nothing. That will cause homelessness, it will cause poverty, it will cause a lot of unrest in this country,” Bartek said. “I can tell you there is a very strong sense of people not being able to trust the government right now.”

Advocates fear the loss of income will contribute to a mounting housing crisis as an eviction moratorium for those living in federally-backed properties also expires on July 25th. Virginia’s freeze was lifted at the end of June.

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House Democrats, who hold a majority in their chamber, tried to extend federal unemployment assistance through January under the HEROES Act. In May, Senate Republicans blocked the bill, writing it off as a Democratic pipe-dream.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is reportedly drafting a new stimulus bill to reflect his party’s priorities. That proposal is expected to be released sometime this week.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told 8News in an interview on Tuesday that failing to revive the $600 supplement would be ‘a disaster.’

“I think any kind of wind down ought to be driven by the economic numbers, not an arbitrary date,” Warner said.

Warner estimated that it could be two to three weeks until Congress has finalized a bill, meaning Virginians on unemployment will almost certainly have to make due for several weeks with reduced payments.

“This is why I thought it was crazy that Congress broke for two weeks. We should’ve stayed here and continued working to address this issue. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s crazy that Sen. McConnell is drafting a Republican-only bill. We’re not just going to go along with that. We want to have our voices heard,” Warner said.

The Washington Post recently reported that Senate Republicans are considering reducing the weekly supplement to $200 or $400 instead of eliminating it entirely.

Republican U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-D5) said he’s considering it, although he would rather see the federal assistance zeroed out. He said the rate right now is too high and argued it’s preventing people from returning to work. He also has concerns about the national debt, as Congress has already spent $250 billion propping up state unemployment.

“I’m willing to compromise but we also have to be willing to protect our taxpayers and, with the amount of money that we’re spending right now, there does come a time that we have to look at the deficit and it should scare people at this point,” Riggleman said.

Warner said there is no data to support the idea that work refusal is a widespread problem, pointing out that those who turn down a job offer must enter a lengthy adjudication process that could result in the loss of benefits.

As Virginia reopens, those refusing to return to work could lose unemployment benefits

WAPO also reported that senators are discussing ending or reducing federal unemployment benefits for people who made more than a certain income before being laid off. Warner said this would be a poor indicator of current economic hardship. Riggleman said it would overcomplicate a benefits process many already consider archaic.

Asked what he would say to Virginians relying on this supplemental assistance to make ends meet, Riggleman said, “If we keep giving unemployment benefits, we’re never going to get to the point where we can restart the economy. Obviously I empathize…but at some point we have to stop spending this money and I think that is where we’re at.”

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