Federal unemployment programs end after this weekend


FORT MYERS

Vital unemployment programs that were put in place nationwide at the start of the pandemic end this weekend and many unemployed people in Florida fear the worst.

With the delta variant surge and the eviction moratorium lifted, for some, it’s the only thing keeping a roof over their head and food on the table.

Ken Okel’s unemployment began when the pandemic started in 2020. Okel works in the meetings industry as a motivational speaker but in a world where audiences are few and far between, he’s had to rely on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

It’s one of the federal programs that allowed people who weren’t eligible for state benefits to get some help, like those who are self-employed or independent contractors.

“I have been unable to work in the field that I’m trained for. And the unemployment has been invaluable,” Okel said.

This wasn’t something he’d rehearsed for but he’s trying his best to keep his business afloat.

“I think there’s a conception that people on unemployment are just sitting on the couch, I can assure you, there’s been no sitting on the couch,” Okel said.

He is surviving mainly on savings and unreliable unemployment benefits.

“Imagine spending all your day trying to call into a phone system that hangs up on you by design. Imagine trying to log into a website where you’ve entered in important information, and then the site crashes,” Okel said. “In the meantime, all the bills have continued.”

And so has the pandemic, but after Sept. 6, PUA and other pandemic benefits will end, including the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which added weeks for people who qualified for state benefits but then ran out.

The federal government doesn’t plan to extend these programs, however President Joe Biden has encouraged hard-hit states to use leftover money from the American Rescue Plan to continue them for a few more weeks, but that likely won’t happen in Florida.

“Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the support mechanisms because it’s going to be a lot harder for people over the next few months without that support,” Okel said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity said this week the state is ready for them to end, thanks to their “Return to Work Initiative” and the many job listings currently online.

Unemployment advocate Vanessa Brito said the reality is very different.

“People are really not getting callbacks,” Brito said. “They’re putting together different resumes, different versions to cater to different positions. So they’re trying, and they’re desperate now.”

And Okel is not getting the results he hoped for.

“I’m able to do my job virtually. But for some organizations, they say, yeah, we just don’t want to do a virtual event. We want to wait another year until people can meet together,” Okel said.

He’s already started to get cancelations for this fall and he is afraid it is not going to stop.

“I’ve had to reinvent my business, I’ve had to get additional education, I’ve had to buy additional equipment, had to pinch every penny,” Okel said. “But when that marketplace doesn’t have money to give you because of cutbacks they’ve experienced, or safety concerns, there’s not a lot I can do.”

Despite his way with words, he needs the couple of hundreds of dollars a week in unemployment benefits.

The reality is you’re treading water and you have no idea when the storm is going to end,” Okel said.

For more information on the federal programs ending, visit the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity here.

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