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Mike Essig with his dogs Corky, left, and Addison on Friday, July. 24, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Before Allison Teso received her unemployment benefits in mid-July, the single mom was sometimes eating nothing but saltine crackers so her 5-year-old son had a meal. She initially filed in March and spent her four months of purgatory worrying about being evicted from her North Las Vegas home and maxing out credit cards to make it by.

Now her bills are paid, her fridge is stocked and her leftover money is going into savings; she said she feels like a weight has been lifted off her chest.

Still, Teso's bracing herself for any future hiccups with her payment from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation and the scheduled end of the extra $600 per week from the federal government, which would leave her with $318 a week in benefits.

"I'm terrified because I had a burst of relief, and then I just know it's inevitable," she said. "I'm going to go back to deciding what bills to pay, what bills not to pay because I'm not going to be able to make it on $300 a week. There's no way."

The extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits from the federal government has made a major impact in some Nevadans’ lifestyles during the pandemic, from helping some to keep financially afloat and avoid dipping into savings and fueling more discretionary spending for others.  

Whether used for need or want, many beneficiaries are hoping it will continue.

The extra $600 on top of base weekly unemployment payments comes from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, authorized by Congress in March as part of the CARES Act coronavirus relief package. This is the first week Nevadans will not be able to claim the extra benefit and will be receiving just the base pay that maxes out at $469, though negotiations in Washington are in place to possibly extend the add-on.

Democrats are pushing to continue the $600 payments. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, known as the HEROES Act, extended the $600-a-week payments and passed the Democratic-led-House in May, but was not heard in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that the GOP plan will be based on providing workers with 70 percent of their pre-pandemic income, which boils down to an average of $200 extra per week for claimants.

Republican Rep. Mark Amodei said he would like to see the added benefit be dispersed on a sliding scale and that $600 was too much for the Silver State's job market. Originally expected to be heard Thursday, the developing GOP bill is projected to be released Monday after consulting further with the White House.

The debate over the additional unemployment benefits during the pandemic has extended past Capitol Hill. With 68 percent of recipients making more on unemployment with the add-on than they did when they were working, one criticism has been that the high amount may discourage some from looking for and returning to work. 

Democratic Rep. Susie Lee addressed the argument in a tweet on Wednesday, saying that the solution to the problem is increasing wages and not decreasing aid during the pandemic.

Economists have argued that the FPUC add-on is supporting the economy during the pandemic. Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, argued that economic growth is constrained by the lack of demand and helping households spend rather than cut back will spur growth. 

He estimated that continuing the $600 enhanced benefits until July 2021 will increase the gross domestic product by 3.7 percent and will add more than 5 million jobs. Nevada is projected to add 84,000 jobs and have the highest boost in GDP in the country at 7.5 percent.

Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows that personal disposable income in the country jumped $2 trillion, or 10.5 percent, from March to April when the FPUC was implemented and stimulus payments started going out. Additionally, personal disposable income in May, which dropped almost $ trillion from April, was still almost $1 trillion more than in February before COVID-19 hit the economy. 

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, beneficiaries described how receiving payments significantly larger than they would under traditional unemployment programs in place before the pandemic has altered their life, and shared their feelings about the uncertainty of the program’s future. 

Allison Teso, 34

With the weekly $600 FPUC add-on, Teso's benefits are almost what she made when she was working as a personal security guard for a startup company before she lost her job in mid-March. 

Teso said she'd be "super surprised" if the federal government extended the additional $600. Even if they don't approve the full $600, she said even half would be helpful.

"They asked us to stay home. Some of us lost our jobs over it. People are complying. Like we need a little help, too," she said. "Come on, there has to be some kind of balance."

Since losing her job, Teso said she's sent out over 500 resumes. Teso, who has a degree in medical billing and coding, said she's gotten only one call back, and the $10-an-hour job called her three hours late for her interview and then never moved forward.

Teso said there may be some people taking advantage of the high unemployment benefits and riding the money out but believes most people are looking for work and just getting by until then.

Although staying home and getting paid may seem better than working, Teso said unemployment comes with extreme stress and worry. 

"Please be thankful you have a job because even though the grass seems greener over here ... it's not — at all," Teso said. "We would much rather be in your position working. I would take a job in a heartbeat right now."

Daryn Browne, 39

The last time Daryn Browne got unemployment benefits was during another national crisis: September 11, 2001. Back then, the money came through a check — not a card — and he received about $300 weekly.

Even though he got $769 more a week this year, the Las Vegas bartender had to add up all his bills and consciously budget for the first time since he can't remember when. His benefits, which were about half of his regular income, covered his bills and not much else. 

He's been back to work for a couple weeks, but his schedule has varied. If he once again started to collect unemployment and didn't have the $600 padding, he would have to dip into his savings.

"Selfishly, I'm a little nervous if I do get laid off again. But if I do get laid off again, I understand why [the $600] went away," Browne said. "It's gonna suck. Is it the end of the world? No, but it's gonna suck."

While at home, Browne didn't apply for any other jobs but started to teach himself how to be a financial advisor as a potential side gig. 

Browne said he thinks the people making more on unemployment than they do working feel "entitled" to the pay instead of using it as a motivational tool to find a job where they can make that kind of money working. 

If the federal government decides to extend the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, Browne believes the amount should be on a sliding scale based on income, using documents such as W2s for verification. 

"There's no reason a Burger King employee who makes $24,000 a year should make $40,000 to stay at home when somebody like myself who makes $90,000 a year is gonna make $40,000 to stay at home," Browne said. "This isn't to make anybody rich — it's to help everybody get by."

Taylor Merlo, 21

Taylor Merlo felt a little silly going back to work. While unemployed, the $268 from the state and the $600 from the federal government was more than she made when she was working at Grimaldi's Pizzeria in Summerlin. When the restaurant reopened during Phase One in May, she and other coworkers in similar situations were hoping they wouldn't be called back to work.

"We were all like we're making more literally staying at home. I know that's selfish for the people that did have to go to work, but at the same time it's hard not to look at it that way 'cause we were all at home, safe, not doing anything, but now we're out here because people want to go out to eat," she said. "It's nice to go out to eat, but it's also nice to stay home and not do anything but still make more than we would there."

Her hours since returning to work have been less than her pre-pandemic timesheet, but she has consistently made more than $268 weekly, forfeiting that money from the state and the extra $600. Merlo said some coworkers have requested to only work one day a week to be able to keep their unemployment benefits, irritating the rest of the team.

"The rest of us are kind of upset about it because here we are working extra because they don't want to work. So how is that fair?" Merlo said. "We're also upset because we know when the unemployment ends, those certain workers are going to be ready to work the five shifts that they normally were before this happened."

Merlo said she would have asked for such an arrangement, but her position as a busser and now a server requires her to be there five days a week. Plus, she didn't want her coworkers to be mad at her.

Living at home with her parents, Merlo said she spent her inflated income on her credit card bill, car payment and "going a little bit crazy" on online shopping. She said she saved a small amount.

Although she doesn't contribute to household bills such as the rent or food expenses, Merlo said that might change if her father, a furloughed worker on the Strip, stops receiving the extra $600 at the end of the month. 

Merlo said she can see how the high amount of benefits has made people "a bit more lazy" in trying to find work but thinks increasing wages to match the cost of living would be helpful.

"It would be nice if we were paid more to work. I'm sure more people would be willing to come in extra days or work overtime because I feel like it's expensive to live," said Merlo, who previously lived on her own but had to move back in with her parents because of the cost. "So when we did get the generous amount of the unemployment, it was nice to see that, and then when we go back to work it's like 'Okay. It's not so nice anymore.'"

Mike Essig, 53

When Mike Essig saw that human resources staff would be present at a company meeting in the first week of April, he knew he was getting furloughed. Essig started filing his unemployment claim while on the phone call.

He got his weekly $469, the maximum amount, and the extra $600 when it started the next week without any problems. As the regional director for technology at Penn National Gaming, Essig said his unemployment benefits are a large cut from his salaried income but have allowed him and his retired wife to coast along with bills and not dip into savings.

Even with the $600 scheduled to expire, Essig said he has a gut feeling that the government is going to have to continue the additional funds for unemployment because of the increasing COVID cases and crippling state of the economy.

"The government's going to have to do something," he said. "I don't know how they're gonna pay for it, but they're gonna have to do something. What, I don't know. But hopefully it's the $600 again."

Essig thinks the argument that the high amount discourages people to look for work is valid but has found that there's not many jobs available and the ones that are likely have large pools of applicants from people looking for work.  

"There's a point where, yeah you have to keep looking and you can be aggressive [in looking for work] all day long. Good luck finding a job," he said.

Some regional directors for his company returned to work once all their properties had opened, but some of the five properties across three states Essig oversees remain closed. Although he's looking for jobs, Essig said there's not many openings in his field, and he'd be "hard pressed" to accept a $10-an-hour job. 

"It's not like there's a whole lot of regional-director-of-technology positions out there going 'Hey Mike! Come apply for us,'" said Essig, who has been working in the gaming and technology industries for more than 30 years. "So at this point, I kind of apply for other things just because what else are you going to do? But no one's hiring."

He has looked into other technology jobs and also positions for contact tracing. He's even interested in trying to fix the DETR backlog issue.

"I keep emailing the governor going, 'Hey I'll do it!'" he said laughing. "I've been working in IT a long time. I've done project management. I would love to be able to come on board and help fix out what the DETR problem is, but I haven't heard a response back."

Tedros Nega, 51

With no problems receiving his unemployment benefits, which are just above his normal wages, Tedros Nega may seem that he should be doing just fine. But Nega said he isn't. 

A cook at McCarran Airport, Nega is the only one of his family of four bringing in money, previously with his unemployment benefits and more recently from returning to work. He's used to contributions from his wife and 22-year-old son, who are waiting on receiving their unemployment benefits.

"The $600 for me, it's okay if I get it. It helps me, but it's not a big deal. I would rather have my family work and be healthy and cover my bills," Nega said. "If my family was working, and this problem was not [happening], I wouldn't take that $600."

He used his unemployment money to pay the bills he can but is still two months behind on his mortgage. 

Nega said he would like the government to have a more holistic evaluation for unemployment benefits, including considering family size and specific issues each family deals with, and to have a plan for those waiting on unemployment benefits because of the backlog.

The money is essential for the family's future plans. Nega and his adult sons are taking college classes for their bachelor's degree. His wife is getting her masters in education from UNLV.

"The money that we get, we are productive. We are building our future," Nega said. "We have to have a vision after we come out from this problem, so we can have a better life."

Melissa Davis, 30

The pandemic came at a bad time for Melissa Davis. The single mom of two had just gotten a new apartment and didn't have much in her savings when COVID hit and the Grimaldi's where she worked at as a bartender shut down.

She received her benefits about five weeks after she initially filed and spent the money on bills and a lawyer for her bankruptcy claim. She also spent it on purchasing internet and a computer, so her 7-year-old could do distance learning. 

"We didn't get to buy anything fun. I mean, a lot of families buy bikes and TVs. Yeah, we didn't get to do none of that," Davis said.

She said she thinks the state's base unemployment levels, which rank in the middle of the national distribution of benefits, is too low and the additional $600 was particularly helpful to her situation.

The funds were less than she was making earlier in the year but usually more than what she's been making since getting called back to work in May. Her hours vary from 10 to 30 hours a week and what she takes home depends partly on how generous customers are with their tips. 

Some weeks she makes less than the $451 the state provides for base unemployment benefits and gets to claim the benefits and the extra $600. Other weeks she makes over the $451 but makes less than she would have if she'd gotten to claim the extra $600.

Davis is hoping for an extension of the funds, but doubts that will happen because of the already extended federal budget. With her dad in at-home hospice care and her mom in between homes, Davis doesn't have many options for fallbacks.

"A lot of people need the extra $600, and they need it to survive and feed their families," she said. "However, I know the economy is doing horrible right now, and we're already so behind on the budget, so I don't think any of this is gonna pass anyway to extend it. I don't really have plan B, so I'm pretty scared and worried.”

The fall currently offers Davis a sort of triple threat: guiding her 7-year-old through distance learning, while working uncertain hours at Grimaldi's and possibly not having the additional $600.

Davis has been looking at other job options — particularly work-from-home positions where she wouldn't have to risk catching the virus — and submitting applications, but hasn't heard anything back yet. 

Her ideal situation would be for the pandemic to be over, so she can return to working like before.

"I wish they would just open things back up, and I wish all this would stop, and we could all just go back to normal," she said. "But that's obviously not happening anytime soon."

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