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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in Kansas City in ways we don’t even understand yet. KCUR is documenting those changes, one by one, through our individual stories. Share yours.

As Unemployment Relief Expires, Fearful Kansas City Residents Criticize Congress — 'Some Of Them Buy Shoes For More Than $600'

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Laura Ziegler
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KCUR 89.3
Reina Dudley, 68, says the loss of the $600 unemployment benefit creates a huge hardship, jeopardizing her ability to pay for utilities, food, her car, insurance and medical expenses. She says elected officials are ignoring the moral obligation to care for those who lost their livelihoods through not fault of their own.

For KCUR's ongoing series "The Next Normal," hear stories of people who have been unexpectedly laid off and worrying about mortgages, food and medical bills as Congress plays politics over federal pandemic unemployment assistance.

On a residential side street in Belton, Missouri, yards are populated with American flags and neighbors visit on the curbs. Reina Dudley comes out of her split-level house to visit at a safe distance on her driveway.

“Well, I just had a conversation with my son, and I said to him it’s truly disgraceful that people in Washington are arguing over the survival of the citizens of the United States of America," she says.

Dudley was laid off from her job with a manufacturing company in March, and at 68, she worries about finding new employment.

In January, she was forced to put her husband in a nursing home because of his advanced Alzheimer’s. The bills come to roughly $7,000 a month.

She’s dipping into her savings, but at this rate, she's worried they could be gone in a year.

Dudley is tired. And she’s angry at the politicians.

“They should be ashamed of themselves. What’s $600 to them?" she asks. "Some of them probably buy shoes for more than $600.”

Stalemate in Congress

For Dudley and thousands of other Kansas Citians suddenly laid off when stay-at-home orders shut businesses down this spring, that $600 check from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program meant the difference between making a car payment, paying the mortgage and even buying food.

The program officially ended July 25, but because of the way states administer the program, some will get checks through the second week in August.

After that, it is anyone’s guess.

Democrats in Washington are advocating restoration of the full $600. Republicans believe the supplemental income is a disincentive for people to go back to work and are proposing to reduce it by two-thirds.

The U.S. House goes on recess July 31 and the Senate on Aug. 7, leaving individuals and families wondering if and when they might see the benefits again.

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Laura Ziegler
Marlina Tatum was surprised to lose her job as an executive assistant immediately when the pandemic hit. She is seeking job counseling in the event her workplace never hires her back.

Not our fault

Marlina Tatum recently visited the Full Employment Council in Kansas City, Missouri, to take advantage of the job counseling and training the nonprofit offers.

A soft-spoken woman who does not appear to rankle easily, Tatum didn't expect to lose her job as an executive assistant immediately when the city shut down.

She knows she is in better shape than many in her community. She lives alone. She will be alright when there is a gap in the $600 payment, or whatever it might become, as Congress irons out differences.

“I’m just myself,” she said. “Others have families and young kids to take care of.”

She gets about $300 in unemployment from the state. She has found work a couple of days a week as a home health aid. She has adult children whom she knows will not let her be put out on the street.

“But I’m their mother,” she says wistfully. “I should be taking care of them, not them taking care of me.”

She also relies on her strong faith.

“I see jobs working for Walmart or Wendy’s,” she says. “But a lot of us had very decent jobs. To take one of those (minimum wage) jobs wouldn’t put us to where we once were to maintain our households.”

She believes the jobs crisis was avoidable.

“This is not our fault we’re unemployed,” she bristled. “If they would have handled this a little different before they got to this point we wouldn’t be in this situation."

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Courtesy- Kansas Department of Labor
Unemployment offices nationwide, including this one at the Kansas Department of Labor, have been swamped with thousands of claims and aging technology unable to process the volume.

Unemployment offices struggle to keep up

Unemployment offices nationwide, including those in Kansas and Missouri, found themselves ill-equipped to handle the tsunami of new calls that came with the pandemic layoffs.

In Missouri, officials say pandemic-related initial claims were 254% higher than the total number of initial claims in 2019.

In Kansas, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor Brett Flachsbarth says his office also saw an unprecedented rise in the level of new claims.

“The number of initial claims when shutdowns began were in the 3,000s," he says. “About a week later, they were in the low 20,000s, and the next week it was in the 50,000s.”

Unemployment had been historically low before the crisis. The office had downsized.

“We had 20 customer service representatives in our call center,” he says. “Then the switch flipped overnight, and we were immediately accommodating hundreds of thousands of calls a day.”

Missouri state Sen. Ed Emery doesn’t believe Missouri’s climbing number of COVID-19 cases are the crisis health officials claim. He believes wearing a mask is unnecessary and opposes extending unemployment benefits.

He says he's hearing from business owners in his district that the assistance is discouraging people from returning to work.

“I talked to an employer who said his employees are telling him ‘Call me back in July when the benefits stop,’” the Cass County Republican says. “I think once we’re not paying people more for staying off the job, then we will see a reduction in unemployment.”

'I honestly don't know'

Vanessa Redford, 34, was laid off in mid-July from Winco Fireworks in Grandview, Missouri, after she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Redford was receiving the $600 unemployment assistance, but it was cut off for reasons she does not understand.

Her mother and sister live near her in Belton. They help each other out financially and with child care for the five children she and her sister have between them.

Her sister works at McDonald's. Her mother is a restaurant server. They are all in quarantine together. Her mother, who makes more money than Redford or her sister, can’t go back to work until Redford has tested negative two different times.

“Until she goes back to work, I don't know," Redford says. "I don’t know how we’re going to pay any bills. Rent or food. We’ve already had to go to a food pantry once. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, I honestly don’t.”

Redford says she was recently on hold with the Missouri unemployment office for five hours.

The computerized voice of an upbeat man constantly reassured her someone would be with her soon. Then she again would hear music.

“The last week you can apply for the benefit is this week, from what I understand," Redford says. “I didn’t receive the benefit last week and my daughter was to go get braces. I didn’t have the money to pay for her appointment.”

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