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Commentary: Senate needs to get on board with extension of expanded federal unemployment benefits

Commentary: Senate needs to get on board with extension of expanded federal unemployment benefits

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There is a looming disaster ahead - in days. The pain will be deep and devastating - especially for the millions of Americans who do not see it coming.

This is Congress' deadline to extend the extra $600 a week in federal funding that has been tacked on to unemployment checks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but expires July 31. More than 25 million Americans and nearly 671,000 Marylanders are receiving the benefit for an average weekly check of $933. If allowed to expire, these Marylanders will see an overnight income loss of 64%.

Congress passed the benefit, known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, as a lifeline for jobless Americans, enabling them to afford necessities like food rent and health care during the crisis. We also expanded assistance to all types of workers, including those who typically don't qualify for state unemployment insurance, such as those self-employed independent contractors and "gig economy" employees like wedding DJs and ride share drivers. Using a simple, flat dollar amount has helped states mitigate already-long delays in delivering assistance due to their outdated technology, overwhelmed staff and unprecedented volume of claims.

FPUC ensures that workers who lost their jobs don't face financial ruin simply for complying with public health measures during the pandemic and that Americans living in high-risk communities can avoid unsafe work conditions. It has been a meaningful supplement to state unemployment benefits, which on average replace less than 40% of workers' wages. It has also helped prevent a projected drop off in consumer spending.

Although the vast majority of unemployed workers of all races, genders and income levels are relying on unemployment benefits, women and racial minorities make up a disproportionate share of recipients, according to a recent analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. These Americans and Marylanders are more likely to feel the impact harder should FPUC expire at the end of the month.

The House of Representatives has done its part, first passing FPUC under the CARES Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump. We extended it again under the HEROES Act, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promptly blocked. He has taken no action since - two months later - and has said it will be "weeks" before the Senate considers its next aid package. This ensures there will be a lapse in these crucial benefits.

That's because the actual deadline to extend them isn't July 31, but Friday, July 24 - just before rent is due. Most states process unemployment payments on a weekly cycle ending on Saturday or Sunday. Because July ends on a Friday, states need an extension by July 24 in order to cover the final week of the month, which runs into August.

The weekly $600 unemployment benefit is the reason so many families have been able to keep their homes and feed their children during the pandemic. My recommendation to Marylanders who are facing the cold reality that they may no longer be able to afford the basics? Call Mitch.

Senate Republicans must follow House Democrats' lead and extend supplemental emergency benefits so workers can get by until it's safe and feasible for them to return to work. Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and others in their chamber, stand at the ready. If Sen. McConnell refuses to give them the opportunity, the disaster will be his fault, but Americans will pay the price for his inaction.

COVID-19 continues to surge across the country. Our economy has not yet recovered and may never if these benefits are allowed to expire. Mitch McConnell must not let that happen.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger represents Maryland's 2nd District in Congress. His Twitter address is @Call - Me - Dutch.

Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com

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