'It's Not That I Don't Want To Work, It's That I Can't'

Lorna Morton of Chester, Virginia, takes care of people’s feet. She’s passionate about her job, but she can’t work if a raging pandemic prevents her from entering her clients’ homes. For 20 years, continuing care and retirement facilities have hired Morton to give pedicures to residents who have cognitive or physical disabilities. Now, most places have COVID-19 protocols that keep her out, and she’s about to lose the unemployment benefits that helped her make it through the summer. “It’s not that I don’t want to work, it’s that I can’t,” she said. A lot of workers are in a similar position. More than 175,000 people are being diagnosed with the coronavirus every single day, and any job that involves indoor contact is potentially risky. Many states are again tightening their social distancing rules, which will likely combine with cold weather to throw millions of workers into unemployment. But Congress is dithering on a bill to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits and a host of other relief programs it created in the spring, when the pandemic wasn’t even half as bad as it is now. Nearly 12 million people will lose benefits next month if Congress does nothing. ASSOCIATED PRESS Workers involved in elder care have been hard hit by the pandemic, with many deemed nonessential to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to vulnerable senior populations. The prospects for another bill are looking grim. Democrats and President-elect Joe Biden want a comprehensive $2 trillion relief package that would extend the benefits, send another round of stimulus checks to most households, bail out the restaurant industry, set up a national virus testing program and throw money to state and local governments. Talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Trump administration broke down before the election and haven’t resumed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, is pushing $500 billion in relief for schools, health care providers and small businesses ― plus a ban on coronavirus-related lawsuits that is a deal breaker for Democrats. After four years in which they added trillions to the national debt through new spending and tax cuts, McConnell and his Republican colleagues are now wary of additional spending ― just as a Democratic president is set to take office, and as the economy teeters. Job growth surged this summer but has been steadily slowing, while new unemployment claims in recent weeks have been rising. Morton, 49, is a certified manicurist and pedicurist who works as an independent contractor. She started receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in May, which were created as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay workers who don’t have traditional payroll jobs and usually aren’t eligible for unemployment. They went six months without having their toenails clipped. Lorna Morton She said most of the senior care facilities that hire her considered her work cosmetic and nonessential, so the benefits made up for her shrunken income. When she was finally allowed to return to one facility in September, what she saw was shocking: “They went six months without having their toenails clipped,” Morton said. She’s stocked up on face shields and N95 masks, but has only been allowed to return to six of the 15 buildings where she regularly worked before the pandemic. She hopes to one day buy a van so that she can make her business into a mobile salon and be less vulnerable to changing COVID-19 rules. In the meantime, Morton thinks Congress ought to step up and send help before the pandemic puts her too far behind on bills. She doesn’t want to throw her career away. “I don’t want to go and get a part-time job or another type of job somewhere else,” she said. “I want to be available for my clients when it’s time.”

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