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The week is drawing to a close without a new coronavirus relief package from Washington.
The CARES Act sailed through Congress in March with bipartisan support for an extra $600 per week for anyone collecting unemployment. But those payments are about to stop, and Republicans, who control the Senate and White House, are balking at an extension.
That's bad news for laid-off workers in Massachusetts, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate. The state's congressional delegation is worried about benefits expiring, unless there's a deal soon.
"Republicans are playing a very dangerous game with Americans' lives," said Rep. Katherine Clark, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. "Twenty million Americans will see their weekly income fall by half if the Republicans allow these unemployment benefits to expire."
No state would be hit harder than Massachusetts, with its 17.4% unemployment rate — more than 6 points higher than the national average.
Republicans correctly point out that the extra $600 per week allows some people to collect more than they made when working. Rep. Lori Trahan, a Lowell Democrat, said her party may be open to a compromise that lowers the payment.
"Absolutely we should be having that discussion," she said. "I'm open to tweaks, but letting the benefit expire or dwindling it down to a place where it's no benefit at all will have long-lasting and devastating effects."
Trahan said she's concerned about effects on the Massachusetts economy and public health.
Laid-off workers won't be left with nothing if the extra payments run out. They'd still get the state's standard unemployment benefit, which amounts to about half of their regular earnings.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said they shouldn't have to settle for that.
"I'm optimistic" about a deal with Republicans, Lynch said. "I think that because of the way some of these Southern states are now lit up with coronavirus, they realize that their constituents are in a difficult position. So, I think that's helping the argument over in the Senate."
Lynch is betting lawmakers from red states will want to send extra help to their own communities, especially with fall elections approaching. And a new federal relief package would also benefit unemployed workers in Massachusetts.
Rep. Joe Kennedy, the Newton Democrat challenging Sen. Ed Markey, said in a statement that "the Senate must take up the HEROES Act," referring to a bill House Democrats passed two months ago that would have paid the extra $600 unemployment benefit through the end of January.
The bill "not only provides the much-needed cash assistance to help hardworking American families get through these times," Kennedy added, "but it also brings in the money states need for testing, tracing and more to ensure we can fight off this pandemic."
This article was originally published on July 24, 2020.
This segment aired on July 24, 2020.
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