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‘I’m not going back to work’: Indiana residents file lawsuit after governor takes away unemployment benefits

'I'm not going back to work': Indiana residents file lawsuit after governor takes away unemployment benefits

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‘I’m not going back to work’: Indiana residents file lawsuit after governor takes away unemployment benefits

Unemployed single mom struggles with loss of job during pandemicUnemployment is expected to go up and more permanent job losses are looming. This is one woman’s story of struggle in pandemic unemployment.Kelly Wilkinson, kelly.wilkinson@indystar.comINDIANAPOLIS – Shanon Singer-Mann hasn’t worked at her restaurant job since COVID-19 began spreading last spring because her son suffers from lung disease and brain tumors.She’s worried he’s vulnerable to dying of a coronavirus infection if she passes it on to him. So, instead of the typical $600 to $700 a week she brings in from restaurant work, she’s been relying on about $300 a week from the federal unemployment program that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is ending about three months early. She has already exhausted her state unemployment.”We’ll have to decide which utility bill to pay, which household items to let go of,” she said. “… We’ll have to change what kind of shampoo we use, what kind of toilet paper we use.” Without the federal pandemic unemployment benefits, many Indiana residents, like Singer-Mann, say they would have had to choose between finding a job and taking care of their children, face evictions, forgo medical care and grapple with devastating financial setbacks that could derail their lives. Related story: A spending boom, but for whom? Lower-income Americans feel left behindThose stories from residents are outlined in a lawsuit filed against Indiana state officials Monday in Marion County Superior Court challenging the state’s decision to end federal benefits by the end of this week.Singer-Mann, 43, of Indianapolis, talked to IndyStar, a part of the USA TODAY Network, but is not a part of the lawsuit. She hopes that a ruling in her favor will allow her to support her family as she completes her high school education so she can find remote work like data entry. “It’s not black and white,” she said. “Everybody’s story is not the same. I’m not going back to work, not at the risk of my son’s life.”The Marion County Superior Court decision, which could be made in the next few days, would temporarily keep people on benefits while a judge hears the case, according to lawyers at Indiana Legal Services. Indiana Legal Services and Macey Swanson Hicks & Sauer filed the lawsuit, along with Concerned Clergy of Indiana, arguing that Indiana law requires the state to pay out federal unemployment benefits to its residents. Recovering the economy: Michigan to use federal $300 unemployment bonus as back-to-work incentiveThe federal benefits that have helped hundreds of thousands of Indiana residents survive the pandemic became contentious once businesses reopening couldn’t hire workers back.The federal unemployment benefits that began last spring boosted paychecks, most recently by $300 a week on top of other state or federal benefits, and significantly expanded the pool of eligible people as a temporary safety net. Holcomb announced last month that Indiana would pull out of the federal program to help fill some 116,000 open jobs before its September end date, along with about two dozen mostly Republican-led states. Politicians and business owners have blamed the federal unemployment benefits, but economists are skeptical that ending the federal unemployment program would drive workers back. Economists say there is a laundry list of reasons workers are not returning to their old jobs, including lack of child care options, changing careers, retiring early and taking time to think through their options and priorities.”Our community is dealing with enough stress and trauma,” said the Rev. David Greene, the president of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis. “And we’re afraid this will add to the stress and trauma, especially among the African American community, where a greater number of people are unemployed.”‘National uniform guardrails’: ‘Broken’ unemployment benefits are in need of reform, workers and lawmakers sayGreene’s activist group is part of the lawsuit against the state, along with residents represented by the Indiana Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that represents low-income residents. Asked about the lawsuit, Holcomb’s office said it followed the requirements when withdrawing Indiana from the federal program.”DWD has timely notified impacted claimants about the state’s withdrawal from the federal programs and continues to connect impacted people with the resources they need to gain skills and be matched with employment,” a spokesperson said in a statement.Thin staff as economy reopensSome workers have come back to work or have worked through most of the pandemic, despite the enhanced benefits.It wasn’t by any means easy. When customers began returning to restaurants with the warmer weather and loosening restrictions, it meant longer hours for Ryan Isenor at his job at a local pizza shop.In addition to serving, he was pouring drinks and bussing tables to make up for the thin staff, cutting into time he typically makes for himself to decompress.However, he doesn’t resent anyone who decided to change careers or taking their time to figure out their next jobs. It’s a personal choice, he thinks. “It’s pervasive: this hustle attitude. But I don’t believe in that,” he said.The restaurant has since hired more people, making his life less hectic, but many service industry businesses are struggling to hire as they scale back to their pre-pandemic levels.While restrictions on business have loosened to allow for more activity, the country’s economic recovery has been slow and choppy despite the optimistic projections that vaccinations will allow for a speedy economic recovery.As the state and country come out of the pandemic-related economic slowdown, recovery has not been even. Higher-income earners have recovered faster, leaving many working-class people to struggle and widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.Workers advocates say there aren’t enough jobs available for everyone relying on federal benefits, citing the 116,000 open jobs referenced by Holcomb last month and about 200,000 on federal benefits. About 5,000 applied for unemployment for the first time at the start of the month in Indiana, which includes applications for both state and federal programs. As of May, the latest available data, nearly 200,000 people have been receiving federal unemployment benefits.The progressive think tank Century Foundation expects Indiana to lose out on $1.5 billion in federal funding that would have helped some 286,000 residents.It may take months to years before the dust settles on the post-pandemic economy and Indiana officials know if the gamble they took turning away hundreds of millions in federal aid will pay off for businesses. With so many factors affecting hiring and job search, it may be hard to know if the governor’s decision would drive people back to work, said Kyle Anderson, an economist at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. For example, hiring is already expected to increase in the summer with loosening pandemic restrictions, like mask mandates, and student workers on summer break from high school and college, he said. “June will have pickups in hiring,” he said. “That’s true regardless of what the extended benefits are going to be.” Evictions amid slow economic recovery Greene is worried that with service jobs offering part-time hours, the elimination of the federal benefits would cause evictions to spike and people to lose their homes.The federal eviction moratorium is set to end on June 30, but evictions sharply rose after the state ban ended at the end of August and have been elevated since. “There’s a difference between going back to work and working 20 hours a week, with rent, car payments, food, etc.,” he said. “We need to get organizations to get back up to 40 hours a week.”  Poverty and evictions also set people up for a number of other social problems. “People dealing with stress and not making enough money, well they resort to crime,” he said. “…Finances is always key in any relationship. When finances dwindle, there’s an increase in domestic violence.” In the first week of June, the state had nearly 600 eviction filings, totaling more than 46,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to the data from Princeton Eviction Lab.A number of residents who are represented by the Indiana Legal Services say they would be evicted if they lost income from the federal program, a setback with long-term consequences. “Without his unemployment benefits, J.C. will be unable to pay for rent and will likely face eviction in July 2021,” the lawsuit notes. “Eviction is both expensive, time consuming and creates a record that can hinder his ability to rent or buy affordable housing in the future and limit his future employment prospects.”Singer-Mann applied for rent assistance but hasn’t heard back yet.”Rent and electricity will come first,” she said.But going back to work at the restaurant is nonnegotiable. She lost her 25-year-old daughter to an illness last April when hospital shutdowns meant she couldn’t be by her child’s bedside. “I really don’t know what we will do,” she said. “I’m a faithful person, I’m giving it to God.”Follow Binghui Huang on Twitter: @Binghuihuang.


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