ST. LOUIS — Cindy Walker would love to go back to work.
The 57-year-old from Imperial has been trying since she lost her sales job at a local lighting company after its COVID-19 pandemic loan ran out in August.
“I’m applying like crazy,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
But while openings at restaurants, hotels and other service-sector businesses have roared back this spring, Walker has struggled to find another job in her field with a $50,000 salary and benefits.
And now she’s about to lose a big chunk of what’s kept her afloat.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson followed several other Republican governors Tuesday in announcing plans to exclude Missouri from federal pandemic unemployment aid — ending a $300-per-week boost and extra weeks of unemployment pay, and chopping all benefits for gig workers and the self-employed.
Congress had extended the programs through Sept. 6. But Parson, who said the extra benefits “incentivized people to stay out of the workforce,” will cut Missouri out on June 12.
Parson’s decision mirrored action taken by governors in Alabama, Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi and Montana. GOP governors in Utah and Wyoming announced Wednesday their states will do the same.
Walker and other Missourians interviewed Wednesday say the benefits remain a crucial lifeline as they hold out for jobs outside the service sector or wait to resume work or gigs until the virus is better contained.
Several conceded what Parson laid out in statistics Tuesday when he said there are more jobs available in Missouri than people unemployed.
But Walker said it doesn’t much matter if the available jobs can’t pay her mortgage.
“I can’t afford to go work at a restaurant. I don’t have the background, and I can’t live on it,” she said. “If June 12 comes and I don’t have something, I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
The job openings are also of little comfort to Jazz Jones, a personal trainer in St. Charles County.
She has a job running her own business working with people in their homes, but it tanked last year as the outbreak spread, and many clients remain hunkered down.
Jones spent unemployment benefits, which normally aren’t available to the self-employed, on gas and certifications to improve her business. She said in an email she planned to use upcoming payments as a backstop as she tries to drum up new clients this summer.
Working for herself has been a point of pride for Jones since she was laid off — via conference call — from an IT job a few years back.
“I swore then and there if I was going to put my time, blood, sweat and tears into another job it would be for my own company,” she said.
After Tuesday’s announcement, though, she said she’s worried about becoming “yet another statistic” as a “minority female-owned business gone under.”
Debra Taylor of Rolla said she also needs a little more runway.
Her hours were cut at a local retailer last year and have yet to fully come back, and she said the $300-per-week boost to unemployment checks have helped her stay in her house.
She said the money has also given her a little breathing room to try to get a better job that really matches her skills, like the executive assistant position she held for nearly 20 years before she was laid off and waylaid by multiple family emergencies.
She’s hoping that nearby Missouri University of Science and Technology will be hiring after increased state aid comes in this summer, but she’s not sure if she can make it until then.
She’s already tapped retirement, and the electric bill can only go on the credit card so many times.
“I could use a little more time and a little more hope, and they’re pulling the rug out from me,” she said.
Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for the governor, dismissed concerns on Wednesday afternoon and said the move would help Missouri recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are over 221,000 known job opening across the state, many of which are good paying jobs,” Jones said in a statement. “Yesterday’s actions ensure that we can fill existing jobs as well as the thousands of new jobs coming to our state as companies continue to invest and expand in Missouri. This is an important step toward returning to normalcy and strengthening our economy.”
Steven Fazzari, an economist at Washington University, said the administration may regret the move yet.
He allowed that the decision could eliminate a barrier to reentering the workforce for some people and help a strapped service sector staff up.
But he said for others, the early cutoff will mean trouble that potentially could be avoided by allowing the extra benefits to run their course while the economy gets closer to normal.
“In those cases, you’re effectively forcing people back into the workforce just to work in worse jobs,” he said. “Do we want to force that on people at this stage of the pandemic?”
A mostly empty Chase Park Plaza ballroom served as an unwelcome metaphor for the tight labor market squeezing the local hospitality sector.
March figure matches lowest jobless rate since pandemic began