The pandemic left them unemployed. Their benefits are running out. Now what?

'I'm already in panic mode'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-23 18:47:28-04

CINCINNATI - In two days, federal pandemic unemployment assistance - or PUA - payments end. For people out of work, that's $600 a week gone unless Congress extends the program.

Meanwhile, those waiting fight fear.

"Extending it is very necessary," said Ebony Cobbins, a married mother of four from Hartwell.

She is thinking about gambling, though not in the traditional sense with cards or money. Cobbins is dealing with something far more emotional.

"I don't like jeopardizing my life," she said. "I need to be here for my kids, and I don't want to have to choose between whether I feed them or I get my medication. I shouldn't have to do that, because before when I was working I didn't have to gamble like that."

Cobbins managed an office as an executive's assistant until coronavirus cases surged and diabetes forced her to stay home.

"That's when my doctor told me not to go back to work because had I caught it, he said there was a good chance I would be one of the ones that died from it," she said.

She has three insulin prescriptions that cost $700 each. So during Cobbins' two-and-a-half month wait for unemployment benefits, she planned to ration her medicine in order to save money for her family's bills.

"The plan was I'll do my insulin on one day and the next day I won't do it," Cobbins said. "But I'll make sure I pay attention to (the) signs of my body so that if it's not where it's supposed to be I can call my doctor and let my doctor know."

Unemployment checks from Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services, income from Cobbins' husband and the extra $600 of PUA through the CARES Act brought relief -- but also new anxiety.

Since February, the federal government has poured more than $4 billion in PUA into Ohio, where JFS has more unemployment claims in the last four months than the previous three years combined. Worse, tens of thousands still need help and PUA is about to expire.

"I'm already in panic mode," said Johnny Stewart, a former installation/repair contractor who lost two jobs when Amazon stopped offering home services to customers.

Stewart applied for unemployment but is still waiting and fears CARES Act benefits will vanish before he's approved.

"Right now, I (have) mechanic work I need done on my car, bills, just food and everything," he said. "I don't get any food stamp assistance or anything right now. So, it's like I'll go wash a car, make a couple dollars, or do something else to keep my day going. It's been rough."

Michelle Horsley wanted part-time work and thought she would have it by July.

"I looked forward to going to work, okay," she said.

However, a surge of coronavirus cases in Hamilton County and several others across the state made the grandmother wonder when and where to go.

"You can't lose it," Horsley said. "You know, you just got to hang on in there and I just keep a song in my heart to get me over."

There may be no live music or stage shows in Cincinnati's largest venues until a COVID-19 vaccine hits the market. Until then, hundreds of stagehands survive on PUA.

"It's kind of starting to get scary, because the unemployment and everything is supposed to end on July 25," said Christopher Walters, a stagehand and member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 5. "If venues can't open back up and performances can't happen, things like that, we're going to be (saying we) don't know what to do."

"This affects almost all the hospitality industry, the travel industry; a lot of those places got significant bailouts, and rightfully so," said Tom Guidugli, Business Agent for IATSE Local 5. "So we (have to) get to the other side of this thing and have a civilization."

U.S. Representative Steve Chabot, who represents Ohio's District 1, which includes Cincinnati, agrees. While optimistic when he spoke with WCPO 9 News earlier this month, he stopped short of guaranteeing a benefits extension.

"Those are things that Congress is continuing to work on, to think about and, ultimately, I think, act on," he said. "Much of it depends on how long this pandemic lasts, and we don't know how long that's going to last."

Cobbins remains too vulnerable to work. So, she is hoping help comes before she feels forced to gamble.