With three children suddenly home all day after schools closed in mid-March, Donia Caldwell took a furlough from her job as an overnight security guard and started collecting unemployment benefits.
A single mother, Caldwell got a boost in April when the federal government began distributing $600 per week in added benefits to the unemployed. But that benefit just ended, with Congress and President Donald Trump still hammering out a new relief effort.
For Caldwell, who lives in Brooklyn Park, that means going back to 11 p.m. shifts — with some new anxiety. "Without the $600, I can't afford where I stay," she said.
She and nearly a half-million other Minnesotans, about one-sixth of the state's workforce, are among the Americans whose immediate future is tied up in the battle about how to rescue the national economy battered by the coronavirus outbreak.
The $600-per-week federal benefit for unemployed workers officially ended Saturday, sending many sidelined workers over a financial cliff. Even if Congress acts swiftly to provide additional relief, there will be a gap of weeks to get payments restarted.
More than 25 million jobless Americans will now go without the $600 federal unemployment supplement, according to the Century Foundation. In Minnesota, unemployment payouts will drop by 61%, according to the research.
"This is a pretty big inflection point in our country's response to the coronavirus," said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). "When people go off it, their lives are going to change quite a bit."
Minnesota's food shelves, housing advocates and other social service providers are on high alert.
"There's a lot of fear coming around the corner," said Hilary Thomas, a workforce counselor at the Twin Cities Urban League. "Combine that with a lot of people who are behind in mortgage payments and rent payments, and people don't know which direction they're going to get hit."
Caldwell has access to public programs that pay for food and health care for her and her three children, ages 8, 10 and 11. But her weekly unemployment check of $179 from the state won't be enough to cover her rent.
With the children's father out of state and other family affected by the pandemic, Caldwell hasn't yet figured out child care plans. And she worries about exposing her daughter, who has asthma, to the virus by having someone else look after her.
"I've got to go back out there," she said. "I have my anxieties, with a child at high risk. But I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
The preference she and others have to stay home while the coronavirus continues to spread is at the heart of the debate over the $600 weekly supplement, which Congress and Trump created in the CARES Act this spring.
Congressional Republicans and some in the White House say $600 is too much and discourages people from returning to work. Others say it gives people freedom to make choices and provides just enough money to prop up the economy.
Senate Republicans are considering a $1 trillion package that likely would scale back the supplemental benefits.
Democrats are pushing a $3 trillion stimulus package the U.S. House passed in May that would continue paying the full $600 a week and provide another round of $1,200 direct payments to taxpayers.
Economists warn that failing to provide additional aid would put the nation's economic recovery at risk, especially because so many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
In Minnesota, more than 70% of workers receiving unemployment benefits have earned more than when they were working before the crisis, Grove said. But not all are low-wage earners.
Laid-off workers who were making less than $62,000 a year, or about $1,200 a week — a majority of the state's labor force — have gotten a monthly bump. That money has helped fuel spending.
Wallace Nabaa got laid off from his job at a Twin Cities commercial refrigerator manufacturer on March 27, less than three weeks before he would have qualified for benefits of a permanent worker.
For Nabaa, his wife and three young children, the extra $600 weekly federal benefit became a financial lifeline, he said. It supplemented the $196 in unemployment benefits he got from the state and the paycheck his wife gets by working at Amazon.
"We were able to keep up on all the bills, thanks to that," Nabaa said. "We didn't want to be in a hole or get desperate and start talking about selling plasma or anything like that."
Nabaa, who lives with his family in St. Louis Park, got a new job at a roofing company just last week. It pays about $100 more than his weekly unemployment benefits, including the $600 supplement.
But the lag between when those benefits end and his first paycheck begins is causing stress. "Rent is due on the first," he said. "We're trying to save, but it's real tight."
New research from Second Harvest Heartland and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicts a hunger surge starting in August that will leave 1 in 8 Minnesotans struggling to afford food, a level not seen in nearly a century.
Without the extra $600 payment, the state's moratorium on evictions may be all that stands between many renters and a fragile relationship with landlords.
"It has helped people make rent, and also helped people secure other important things, like food and other necessities," said Eric Hauge, executive director of Home Line, which provides renters free and low-cost legal advice over the phone. "For a lot of our clients, rent eats first because you need to keep a roof over your head — otherwise everything else falls apart."
Food banks across Minnesota are expecting a 65% increase in demand through the remainder of this year and into 2021, according to the McKinsey study. An additional 275,000 Minnesotans are expected to go hungry.
"We're all kind of bracing," said Joe McDonald, who leads Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP), which operates one of the state's largest food shelves along with a housing assistance program.
VEAP now allows families two visits per month to its Bloomington location, instead of one, and gives more food per household. Each day 130 to 170 households receive groceries there.
Calls about rent assistance have jumped tenfold during the pandemic, McDonald said. He hired two Spanish-speaking housing specialists to meet demand. About 6 in 10 households who needed help with rent also turned to VEAP for food.
VEAP's pre-pandemic annual budget for the housing program, which pays landlords directly, was $170,000. McDonald now expects VEAP to have paid out $1 million by early August, helped by funds from the cities of Richfield, Bloomington and Edina.
"We're wondering whether August is going to look like April, when this first started, with an immediate influx of people now in that desperate spot without any more resources," McDonald said. "At least we're more prepared now, with more funding, than we were in March and April."
Minnesotans face another potential end to a stopgap measure that currently prevents landlords from evicting tenants having trouble making rent.
The moratorium is part of Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 emergency orders, which will expire Aug. 12 unless the Legislature approves another 30-day extension.
"There's just this pending threat at all times," said Hauge, director of the tenant hotline. He estimates that the moratorium along with the $600 bump in unemployment payments have forestalled 6,000 eviction notices.
"It's like a double-edge sword. The suspension keeps the cases from getting filed for another 30 days, but it also pushes you into another month, where another month of rent is due."
For Kristi Hertz, the additional payment helped her through a pandemic-related layoff from a marketing job, even as she gave up her $1,050-a-month apartment and moved in with a niece in White Bear Lake.
"I got a forbearance from the people who held my car loan for four months, but they were charging interest." she said. "My landlord worked with me on rent, but when I moved out, he wanted the rest of the rent so he took it out of my deposit."
Hertz recently got a job through a temporary agency that she believes will become permanent. And she's saving again to get her own place.
"Without that extra $600, I wouldn't have been paying the bills," she said. "I wouldn't have been buying groceries."