Since the coronavirus pandemic hit at the beginning of March, Heather Sullivan estimates she’s applied to more than 100 jobs. “I'm just praying that I get something in the next couple of weeks,” Sullivan said. “Right now I’m just grinding every day, doing whatever I can to try to get a job and hoping that something works out.”
In the meantime, the Quincy resident says unemployment assistance, including an additional $600 weekly unemployment payment, has kept her financially afloat.
“Without the extra $600, I'll basically be bringing in just enough to cover my rent and utilities, not including my car, food, my dog or anything else,” said Sullivan, 31. “It’s not really livable — I did the math, and it’s about $25,000 per year, which isn’t really livable for anybody in the Boston area.”
The extra $600 weekly check — a supplemental unemployment benefit package approved by Congress back in March — is set to expire by the end of this week in most states, which puts Sullivan and some 30 million others across the country in a precarious spot.
When Congress comes back into session this week, lawmakers are slated to debate a possible extension for the supplemental program — which would be a significant help to Sullivan.
“My job that I was furloughed from, I'm obviously not back there yet, and the bar I was working at, that’s not open, either,” Sullivan said. “So it's not like I can go back. Neither of those things is even an option.”
Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and employment research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says Sullivan’s story is not unusual.
“There's at least 10 or 11 million workers whose jobs have disappeared permanently, so they've got to pivot and find alternative employment,” Kochan said. “Employers are doing their best to bring people back, but it's just not going to happen in the short run for many, many people.”
Many of those people are Massachusetts residents. The state unemployment rate in June climbed to 17.4%, the highest in the country, according to federal data published Friday. From January through June, the unemployment rate for Black, Latino or Hispanic residents remained several percentage points higher than the rate for white residents, according to research from the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment.
Kochan says Congress now has a responsibility to act quickly to extend the supplemental benefit or come up with another strategy to ameliorate the situation.
“They really have to act, because there are way too many people in the economy who are suffering. And more will be suffering with extended unemployment for the foreseeable future,” Kochan said. “We are facing the worst employment crisis since the Great Depression.”
Kochan’s research at MIT shows a historical lack of agency and expression for employees in America — an issue that Kochan says has been illustrated and exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There is a genuine failure to listen to the workforce in American society, in American politics and in business,” he said. “Congress isn't listening to that. The president isn't listening to that. Some employers aren't listening to that. So we have a big, big challenge of restoring worker voice in American society and an American workplace.”
While Sullivan continues to apply for jobs, hoping to catch a break in a crumbling economy, Kochan says this period is an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We don't know how much worse it will get, but what we do know is it's going to go on for a long time,” Kochan said. “It took a decade to rebuild the economy and get all of the jobs that we lost in the Great Recession of 2007-2009 back. We can't go through another decade like that. Too many people were left behind.”