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Congress deciding future of federal $600 weekly jobless benefit set to expire
Locals say help is still needed
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Acupuncturist Steve Collins demonstrates the traditional Chinese medicine Tuesday, July 21, 2020, on patient Nicole Kiang at his office at The Spa on Green Street. - photo by Scott Rogers

A debate may be raging in Washington, D.C., over whether to extend federal unemployment benefits, as well as other help as part of a new stimulus package. But locals say there’s still widespread need, and the benefits are still needed. 

“My practice has been hit hard and I remain partially unemployed due to the drop in people who are either unable or unwilling to venture out,” Gainesville acupuncturist Steve Collins said this week. “My patient load has dropped in half and if it weren't for (funding assistance), I very well might be on the street.” 

Despite some positive signs, unemployment is a rampant problem nationally, and congressional leaders are considering an extension to the federal jobless benefit, which is set to end Saturday, July 25. The federal CARES Act, a coronavirus relief law enacted in March, provided an extra $600 weekly through July 31 to Americans receiving jobless benefits. 

A package from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, being crafted this week behind closed doors, is expected to replace the $600 with a smaller amount. 

It’s one of the more controversial aspects of stimulus funding. Critics have said that between state and federal jobless money, workers are getting more money than they were while employed and thus, have no incentive to return to work. 

One crack in that argument is that “unemployed workers must attest each week that they haven’t refused an offer of work to keep receiving benefits,” according to the Georgia Department of Labor. “Generally, if you reject an employer’s call to return to work, then you have quit your job and are no longer eligible for unemployment compensation.” 

In Georgia, $6.5 billion in federal supplement was distributed between March 21 and June 11, or nearly two-thirds of the state’s total distribution of $9.5 billion during that period, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. 

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Steve Collins is a licensed acupuncturist and doctor of Chinese medicine at the Spa on Green Street. - photo by Scott Rogers

“Currently, we have 1,148,617 Georgians receiving (unemployment insurance) payments,” Labor Department spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said Tuesday, July 21. “If they receive at least $1 in state or federal weekly benefits, they receive the extra $600 weekly benefit.” 

Georgia's jobless rate dropped in June to 7.6%, compared 3.5% in June 2019, the department has reported earlier this month. 

“June was the first month to show positive numbers in all major indicators since the pandemic started,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “Although it is nice to see the pendulum move in the right direction, we are not naïve to the fact that we may see another tick up in claims over the next few months.” 

Benefits overall have been slow in coming for many Georgians, including Marybeth Martin, a Clermont hair stylist. 

“It took me 17 long weeks to be paid at all,” she said, adding that she did receive 17 weeks of back pay.  

Martin did she say she is back at work on a part-time basis, “so I’m still receiving benefits,” adding she’s “concerned about what is going to happen with the additional $600 per week ending. “ 

“If the kids are able to go back to school, I will be able to work full-time,” Martin said. “But in the event they start shutting down schools, the amount the PUA pays will not be able to support my family.” 

PUA, or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, are benefits for those who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for assistance, such as the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, and church and nonprofit organization employees. 

Collins said he has been using unemployment funds "to not only remain in my apartment and pay bills, but build up a small cushion.”  

“I am working as I can, taking proper precautions. However, like a restaurant worker who has to deal with half the tables removed and the subsequent drop in patrons, I have to try to live with a minimal number of patients a week,” Collins said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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