Claudia Urbiales worked in food service at George Bush Intercontinental Airport for just over five years before she lost her job in March thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. A single mother to three children living in Houston’s Northside district, Urbiales depended on the additional $600 per week of federal unemployment benefits that was included in the CARES Act — the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress on March 25 — to support her family, to pay the mortgage on her family’s home and to cover her son’s hospital bills.
Now that the additional $600 weekly benefit has expired as of July 25 with no replacement, Urbiales doesn’t know how she’s going to make ends meet. Even though she’s scared of what the next few weeks will hold for her family, she’s doing her best to stay strong for her kids.
“Sometimes I feel like I want to cry, but I can’t…I can’t show my feelings, my real feelings in front of them,” she said.
Urbiales, who is part of the UNITE HERE service workers union, attended a combination political rally and food distribution for unemployed union members on Tuesday, held right in front of Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s office at 5300 Memorial Drive in Houston. Union organizers chose Cornyn’s office as the location for Tuesday’s event in an attempt to pressure the Texan senator into supporting the HEROES Act, the COVID-19 relief package passed back in May by the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives which would reinstate the additional $600 weekly unemployment payments through January 2021.
“Our hope is that Sen. Cornyn hears the voices of working people in Houston in demanding justice,” said Bo Delp, the senior political organizer for UNITE HERE Local 23, the union chapter that covers all of Texas as well as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. Delp estimated that 95 percent of UNITE HERE’s Houston members are currently unemployed due to COVID-19, the majority of whom used to work at IAH Airport and local hotels.
Cornyn was one of several Republican senators facing reelection in November who UNITE HERE has pressured to reinstate the weekly $600 unemployment benefit. On Tuesday, other local UNITE HERE chapters held similar food distributions and rallies in front of the offices of Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Delp said.
So far, the Republican-led U.S. Senate has refused to take a vote on the HEROES Act. Cornyn specifically has instead voiced his support for the HEALS Act, an alternative plan proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would initially only offer an additional $200 per week through September to unemployed workers on top of what their states already provide.
After September, the HEALS Act would require the federal government to pay unemployed Americans an additional weekly amount that when combined with an individual’s existing unemployment benefits wouldn’t exceed 70 percent of a given worker’s previous wages.
As of August 1, over 3.1 million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic in March according to a Texas Tribune analysis of Texas Workforce Commission data. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July that Texas’ June unemployment rate of 8.6 percent was lower than the 13 percent peak in May, hundreds of thousands of Texans are still out of work, including many Houstonians.
The most recently available Houston area unemployment statistics provided by the Greater Houston Partnership show that Houston’s labor force has shrunk by almost 99,000 workers since February of this year. Their analysis found that Houston’s June unemployment rate was 9.9 percent, down from its May peak of 13.9 percent.
Both houses of Congress were unable to pass any new unemployment benefit into law before the $600 weekly CARES Act benefit expired in late July. Talks between Congressional Democrats and Republicans broke down Friday after party leaders were unable to agree to a compromise that would bridge the $2 trillion gap between the Democrats’ $3 trillion HEROES Act and the Republicans’ $1 trillion HEALS Act.
That development prompted President Trump to issue an executive order on Saturday that would create a new weekly unemployment benefit of $300 per week, which would be funded by siphoning off previously approved federal disaster aid money. Trump’s order also asks states to voluntarily pitch in an additional $100 per week to their unemployed workers.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s unemployment benefit extension by fiat will ultimately reach the pockets of Americans, given expected legal challenges to the order which obviously encroaches on Congress’ constitutional authority to control federal spending.
Texas Workforce Commission spokesperson Cisco Gamez told the Houston Press that the TWC “is waiting on further guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor” around Trump’s order, and declined to comment on whether the TWC has received any guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration about whether or not the state will contribute the extra $100 weekly payment requested by Trump. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Even if Trump’s new mandated unemployment benefit materializes, or if the Republican U.S. Senate agrees to pass legislation for a new weekly payment, UNITE HERE believes that anything less than the $600 weekly benefit would be a slap in the face to American workers. In response to comments from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who contended that the $600 weekly benefit amount was always too high, and told the Washington Post that he believed it created “negative incentives” encouraging Americans not to want to work in the first place — Delp was clearly offended.
“The federal government gave billions and billions of dollars to very large corporations to stabilize their finances. So when I hear somebody say that $600 for a worker to continue to pay their rent, not get evicted, buy food for their family and be able to afford to pay out of pocket medical expenses… I don’t see how that’s too generous. I think this is a question of survival,” Delp said.
Cruz spokesperson Maria Jeffrey gave a statement which explained that Cruz believes “Congress should be focused on helping Americans safely return to work” as opposed to “paying people more to stay at home and not work.”
In an emailed statement, Cornyn aide Natalie Yzebick said that while her boss “supported the additional federal unemployment benefits in the CARES Act” of $600 per week, he still now only supports the HEALS Act’s reduced benefit extension, and she wouldn’t answer whether or not Cornyn personally believed $600 a week was too much money to put in the pockets of unemployed Americans like his fellow Texan senator Cruz.
Urbiales hopes that Tuesday’s demonstration will encourage Cornyn to listen to the cries of concerned unemployed Texans like herself and move to reinstate the additional federal unemployment benefit to its previous level. Due to all that she and her fellow service workers have done over the years to keep our country running, she says it’s the least he can do.
“Now I’m waiting for them to support me in the same way I support them,” she said.