'We're Going To Have To Pray': The Extra $600 Unemployment Benefit Is About To Run Out

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The Boston Harbor Hotel, pictured in 2016, would normally be 80% to 90% booked in the summer. Instead, it's just 10% to 20% full. (Bill Sikes/AP)
The Boston Harbor Hotel, pictured in 2016, would normally be 80% to 90% booked in the summer. Instead, it's just 10% to 20% full. (Bill Sikes/AP)

Gus Tarazona has been getting by on savings and $1,300 per week in unemployment payments since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the Westin Boston Waterfront, where he works.

Now, the father of three is on the verge of losing much of his jobless benefit. Unless Congress acts, this is the last week for laid-off workers in Massachusetts to collect an extra $600 under the federal CARES Act. Without that additional amount, they'll receive only the standard unemployment payment, which is about half of their regular earnings.

Tarazona may be brought to his knees — literally.

"What am I looking to do? I don't know," he said. "Probably get a friend of mine to help him put in floors, doing some hard work or something. I mean, there's no way I can look for something in my industry."

At 53, after more than two decades in hospitality, Tarazona said starting a new career would be difficult.

Many of his colleagues are in similar positions. Hotel workers in Massachusetts are among the hardest hit by coronavirus containment measures because their industry was almost entirely shut down for three months. Even now, their job prospects remain limited.

While some hotels around Boston are reopening, many are operating with skeleton crews because occupancy rates are so low. The Boston Harbor Hotel, for example, would normally be 80% to 90% booked at this time of year; instead, it's 10% to 20% full, according to General Manager Stephen Johnston.

"You're not doing weddings, your restaurant isn't as busy as it normally would be, and if you're not allowed to open your bar, then you just don't have work for quite a number of people," said Johnston, adding that he needs just one-fifth of his staff, for now.

And the outlook isn't great for the fall, when conventions and other business travel would typically pick up, and hotel workers might earn a little extra in overtime.

"I absolutely know that this fall, in most parts of the state, is going to be very difficult, very problematic," said Paul Sacco, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Lodging Association.

Though many hospitality workers see no end to their unemployment, there are places in Massachusetts where hotels are hiring. On Cape Cod, some hotels usually rely on foreign workers to fill openings in the busy summer season, but the Trump administration has suspended two key visa programs.

Finding local replacements is proving difficult.

"Normally, we have myself and an assistant innkeeper, and then we bring on a seasonal worker, often a student from outside the United States who's looking to come here as part of an exchange program, and they work," Steve Katsurinis, owner of the 8 Dyer Hotel in Provincetown, recently told state lawmakers in a hearing. "That was unavailable us this year, and we really weren't able to find anybody else to come and step in for the seasonal work."

Cape hotels have tried shuttling workers from Boston in past years, but it's generally not worth the cost, according to the lodging association — certainly not in a down year for tourism.

Thus, the industry's few job openings seem out of reach for people like Tim O'Reilly, who works with Gus Tarazona at the Westin Boston Waterfront.

"We're going to have to pray for unemployment to get extended," O'Reilly said, "but I think everybody's pretty aware that that's a 50-50 [chance] at this point."

Congress will debate an extension this week. House Democrats previously passed a bill that would have paid the extra $600 unemployment benefit through the end of January, but the Republican-controlled Senate rejected the idea. GOP lawmakers note some people have actually upped their incomes by not working.

A compromise could continue extra unemployment payments but lower the amount.

This segment aired on July 20, 2020.


Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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