Thousands left out of federal unemployment aid program

  • Bob Weiner in his home studio in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/4/2020 7:34:17 PM

AMHERST — Bob Weiner remembers the last gig he played before the pandemic struck. On March 12, the drummer performed with Darryl Harper, a jazz musician, at the Inn on Boltwood.

“Then everything just ended,” he recalled, and as the pandemic unfolded, his music gigs dried up.

Weiner, 69, is a self-employed Amherst resident and earned a living doing music performances and freelance teaching. For a while, he was able to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, benefits for those who aren’t eligible for regular unemployment. But, because he made more than $5,100 from one employer last year, he was deemed ineligible and bumped out of the program and into unemployment, he said, where he was receiving $97 a week. On Sunday, though, the online system for the Department of Unemployment Assistance informed him that he no longer has unemployment insurance, after he reported $475 of freelance income from Amherst College. He is currently trying to get into contact with someone at the department.

“I thought I did everything right,” said Weiner, who noted that his account was frozen for five weeks the last time he reported income from Amherst.

In August, most residents on unemployment started getting an extra $300 a week through the Lost Wage Assistance program, but Weiner didn’t receive it.

President Donald Trump started the LWA program, but stipulated that to be eligible, one must receive at least $100 in either unemployment insurance or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. When Weiner found out about the threshold, he felt confused and upset.

“I’m $3 short of that. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. What is the point of that?” he said. “Wait a minute, people who are really poor at the bottom of this food chain don’t get help? I don’t get this.”

The requirement is “extremely unnecessary, arbitrary, and punitive to low-wage workers,” reads a letter from more than 100 state legislators sent to Rosalin Acosta, Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, in late September. The letter asks that the Department of Unemployment Assistance work to temporarily increase ineligible residents’ benefits to at least $100 a week to make them eligible for the additional funds.

Rhode Island and New Hampshire have done this, the legislators point out.

Benefits under the LWA program lasted for six weeks, and in Massachusetts, they ended in September. But, there is still funding left, according to state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, who signed the letter. People who didn’t meet the $100 threshold could get benefits retroactively, she said.

“But we have to act quickly,” Sabadosa said. “Because once the money runs out, the money runs out. It’s just imperative that we do this.”

Sabadosa said she has heard from many constituents in situations similar to Weiner’s.

“When I first heard about it, I had a constituent who sent me a Facebook message and thought, ‘Oh this is just a mistake, there’s no way what she’s saying is accurate,’” Sabadosa said.

The woman received $79 in benefits and didn’t qualify for LWA benefits.

“It felt frustrating,” Sabadosa recalled. “Why he (Trump) decided it wasn’t going to the poorest and neediest people is very confusing.”

An estimated 17,000 people are in this situation, a figure that Sabadosa said Acosta provided.

The legislators’ letter states that if even 1,000 people became eligible for the benefits, it would bring an infusion of $1.8 million into our state’s economy and “not only does the increased purchasing power aid businesses in the state, but these benefits also contribute to taxes for state coffers,” they wrote.

Raising benefits to meet the $100 threshold would require a change in law, plus new federal funding would need to be available to get LWA benefits, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said last week, according to a report by State House News Service.

For Weiner, the extra $300 a week would be helpful, he said.

“It would let me pay my rent,” he said. “I can’t live on $97. To me, the LWA would just help — but it’s not that longer kind of solution.”

Staff writer Bera Dunau contributed to this story.

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