Over the last 18 months, unemployed Americans have continually faced their benefits being cut off.
Federal benefits are set to come to a permanent end come Labor Day, despite calls to extend.
Insider spoke to Stephanie Freed, the executive director of ExtendPUA.org, about the last year of unemployment advocacy.
In early 2020, Freed was working as a freelance lighting designer in the live events and entertainment industry. When the pandemic hit, she watched her jobs get postponed - and they didn't come back.
"Our industry was just like in a huge panic, cause that was what was keeping people alive," Freed said.
At the onset of the pandemic, jobless workers like Freed received an additional $600 a week in unemployment, thanks to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a federal program that expanded who was eligible for unemployment benefits. It brought gig workers and freelancers into the fold - and, according to an analysis from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, made up the greatest share of federal UI distributed in 2020.
But that supplement was set to expire at the end of July 2020. Freed set out to co-found the advocacy group ExtendPUA.org, which is still fighting for the extension and expansion of unemployed benefits a year later. Freed serves as executive director, chief strategist, and communications director. According to its website, the group has an "engaged base of over 25,000 people."
Here's Freed's story in her own words, edited for brevity.
I'd never been in an advocacy kind of role.
We started just reaching out to Senate offices and setting meetings. We had 40 meetings with senators in the fall, bringing constituents to tell them about their experience with the unemployment system, their experience with the pandemic, and this loss of the $600.
It was pretty incredible, in a not good way, just watching how often we had to keep reinvigorating the fight. People lost the $600. Then, by the end of the year, we were going to lose everything, and that got extended at the very last minute.
And then in March we were going to end it all again. And then that got extended at the last minute.
It's just been like this rolling cliff that no one's ever gotten to stop and get to breathe and just survive the pandemic. Everyone who's lost their jobs - millions of people - have just been waiting and being pushed off of cliffs.
It became untenable to do this 24/7, because I needed to also start finding a way to survive.
I have gotten a job, which is great. I'm lucky to be in that position, and so many people are not that lucky. That's why we have to continue this work - because if these expirations happen, 7.5 million people are going to lose all of their assistance. I'm in my thirties. I have a resume of marketable skills. It took me 15 months to find a job.
People are unable to get jobs because they have childcare responsibilities. But also we're just hearing from people who keep applying and keep applying and don't hear back, or they do hear back and they're either told they're under-qualified or overqualified.
People are having to pivot out of their own industries to try to just survive.
At the beginning, it was a coping mechanism.
Being unemployed and not knowing when work was going to come back and how exactly you survive without work for over a year, that's an overwhelming feeling. Extend PUA for me personally became very much a coping mechanism. Whether that was always healthy or not as healthy, because I was going 24/7, it remains to be seen.
It has been disappointing to see the lack of appetite for these last extensions. There are not a lot of advocacy groups, less even pushing for extensions because they are saying there is no political appetite for them.
We aren't an established nonprofit or anything like that. And I feel like a lot of those groups are more easily swayed by what the government is willing to do, instead of swaying the government.
People are like, 'Well, just get a job!'
I think people who are saying that just have no idea what is happening actually, because those jobs are often not well paid or not full-time. You could need four of those jobs to make enough money to send your kids to daycare.
And then the schools are not being consistent. With Delta surging, there's not a lot of confidence about whether kids will stay in school or whether they will be sent back home for distance learning, and parents can't go back to work if their kids are going to be at home.
I'm not sure if it's not clicking.
We have been pretty in touch with a lot of Democratic legislators. I mean, last fall we had meetings with both sides of the aisle, but we've certainly, since the Democrats have come into control of both halves of Congress, technically, we've been focused there with our advocacy.
It's disappointing to see how many people voted for them, and put faith and hope in them, and that they're allowing that to be overshadowed by false narratives that are being put out about people being too lazy to work.
It seems like as much as sometimes President Biden speaks out against that, he also seems to be buying in about it being a disincentive to work, even though it's been completely disproven. And it's frankly, a cruel talking point and a cruel narrative to buy into.
Americans are not lazy. They're struggling.
We are still in a pandemic. Delta is surging. People are reclosing events. Like all of our events in our theaters were starting to reopen and shows are getting canceled again already. So we're seeing a dip back down and we're going to lose these programs because of, I would say, political weakness, that they're not fighting for something that's really important because they are tired of fighting for things, and they're letting this one go.
We have 10 ways you can get involved.
I think that the most important things right now are reaching out to your federal legislators, just to make sure that they know that as a constituent, you want something done about this. You are a constituent who is unemployed, and you need these extensions to happen.
Now that some of this might transition to responsibility being on the states, really getting into some of your local papers and getting to those state legislators and the governors is going to become key to the states that have that option left.
The next step in solving this problem is fixing the unemployment system so this doesn't happen again, if we have another crisis like this. So getting involved in the fix UI movement is another great way to change this problem for the future. If we fix the program, we don't have to hit these cliffs. We'll have benefits that are more equitable and are higher and closer to actually replacing wages.
Read the original article on Business Insider