Co-Chairs of Legislature’s budget, labor committees join laid-off workers in call for Congress to pass real COVID-19 relief

Inaction by US Senate is increasing hardship for Mainers and threatens deeper, longer recession

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers facing continued record-breaking unemployment and an unprecedented state revenue crisis can wait no longer for Congress to deliver the resources necessary to fund Maine’s recovery from the pandemic recession. The US Senate must pass a relief package adequate to the needs of families and communities.

That was the message delivered by laid-off workers, policy experts, and the co-chairs of the Maine Legislature’s budget and labor committees during a news conference Friday. The recorded event can be seen here

“As Mainers, we can be proud of the job that we have done to combat the global pandemic. Maine people have stepped up. State and local government has stepped up. Now, we need Washington to step up,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, the House Chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. “We need Sen. Collins to join the rest of our Maine Congressional Delegation in supporting legislation that will provide working people with needed relief. Now is the time for Congress to enhance unemployment benefits, fund health care and increase support for states and municipalities. It’s time for Congress to step up for us.”

The US House of Representatives in May passed the HEROES Act, a relief package that would help laid-off workers, renters and homeowners, communities and state budgets survive this unprecedented crisis. The Senate has refused action on the HEROES Act and, through its inaction, allowed the expiration of eviction protections and crucial bonus unemployment benefits for workers laid-off during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, states including Maine face record revenue shortfalls that threaten further layoffs and cuts to vital services such as education and health care, which would hurt families and delay Maine’s recovery. 

“Mainers are struggling because of the pandemic recession,” said Sarah Austin, policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “Our state is experiencing record-breaking unemployment and a revenue crisis that threatens further layoffs and cuts to the very services necessary to fuel our economic recovery, such as education and health care. Senate Republicans have floated several proposals, but all of them — including those by Sen. Susan Collins — fall short of meeting Maine’s needs. We cannot wait any longer. The Senate must act now to deliver the resources necessary to fund Maine’s recovery.”  
More than 180,000 Mainers experienced a loss of household income last week when the US Senate allowed emergency $600 weekly unemployment payments to expire. Those benefits helped workers make ends meet while they awaited a return to work that, for many, still seems far away.

“The unemployment benefits that I received until last week helped me keep up with the basics during my layoff. Now, after a $600 weekly cut, I don’t know how I will be able to pay my mortgage, make my vehicle payments or even buy school clothes for my three kids,” said Dan Garland, a laid-off truck driver from Garland. “I want to go back to work, but I’m still waiting for my industry to recover. People are getting stressed and people are getting anxious. Congress needs to extend unemployment benefits immediately.”

Brittany Burgaj, a wedding photographer from Old Orchard Beach, said her industry has been hit hard by the pandemic as couples postpone weddings previously scheduled for this year.

“With those delays our income has vanished,” Burgaj said. Weddings are planned months and even years in advance, so recent changes to gathering limits won’t help me pay my bills in the near term. Extending pandemic unemployment benefits would make sure our industry can weather the storm. The wedding industry brings in almost $1 billion annually to our state, and that doesn’t even include the money spent by wedding guests who pay for lodging, entertainment, and dining outside of the wedding itself. If our local small businesses are unable to stay afloat during this time, it won’t just hurt businesses like mine and the couples who come here for their special day. It will affect our whole economy.”

Sen. Shenna Bellows, Senate Chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, said stories like Garland’s and Burgaj’s are playing out all over the state.

“So many of the people I represent are desperately trying to hold on, but it’s getting harder and harder,” Bellows said. “Losing the federal unemployment assistance is a major blow to households across Maine, as well as our economy. And it’s a pain that was entirely preventable. If Congress members spent every day talking to their constituents, like I do, they’d hear the fear in their constituents’ voices. My colleagues and I in Maine’s Legislature are doing all we can, but we need federal leaders to step up and act.”

As of Friday afternoon, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had signalled senators could go home, without any agreed-upon relief plan or scheduled vote.