Elicia Culton had grown accustomed to providing for her family of three as a small business owner, but her ability to do so came to a halt in 2020 when the coronavirus shut the world down.
The Florissant resident said her catering clients canceled as restrictions prohibited social gatherings and she was eventually laid off from her part time bakery job. The federal unemployment programs kept her family afloat throughout the pandemic, if just barely — most times having to alternate paying for either electricity or water each month.
But it’s now been over two months since Missouri Gov. Mike Parson ended the state’s participation in all federal pandemic-related unemployment programs, arguing that by doing so it would alleviate workforce shortages by creating a need for people to get back to work.
Worker advocates argued this would simply force Missourians to accept low-wage, no-benefit jobs. A person working full time earning Missouri’s minimum wage brings in $412 a week (pre-tax), putting a family of three below the poverty line.
Culton said she wants people to understand the unemployed didn’t go back to work because they were collecting the federal unemployment payments.
“I think it's more than that,” she said. “It's about being paid fair wages and a lot of jobs that are available are lower paying. And when you are trying to raise a family, when you have people that depend on you, it is not easy to go back to work for 10, 12, 15 bucks an hour and you're only working 20 hours a week — it's hard.”
For Culton and her family, all of whom are in the high-risk category for COVID-19 infection, Parson’s decision means it’s been two months of feeling helpless and overwhelmed while trying to find employment and get her teenage son back to school. She said she’s getting a few more catering jobs, but they're small because people really aren't gathering like they used to.
Earlier this month, Culton stood with Missouri Jobs with Justice (MJWJ) in suing the state and Parson to reinstate the federal programs and retroactively pay the estimated 147,890 Missourians who lost their federal benefits in June.
Caitlyn Adams, executive director with Missouri Jobs with Justice, argues that blocking assistance from workers means the state’s economy and democracy has sided with corporations and not Missouri families.
“The Governor’s action directly violated Missouri law, which requires the state to cooperate with the federal government to maximize support for struggling families,” she said in a statement. “Today, we seek to restore the benefits that were unjustly taken from families and to fight for an economy where all Missouri families are valued and supported.”
At least 25 states have pulled out of federally funded unemployment programs, which includes the $300 weekly payment on top of the state’s unemployment payment. Those programs are set to expire for all states on Sept. 6
While the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell to a 17-month low last week, according to a Aug. 19 Reuters report, uncertainty lies ahead as the delta variant disrupts reopening efforts across the country.
In Missouri, unemployment claims declined from 4.3% in June to 4.2% in July. The Missouri Independent reported that the 0.01% increase resulted in the addition of exactly 15,000 non-farm jobs to the state’s payrolls.
In St. Louis city specifically, there were 1,434 unemployment claims in June (7.4%), compared to May with 1,896 claims (6.7%). In St. Louis County, percentages were a little lower with 3,315 claims (5.3%) in June and 5,915 claims in May (4.7%).
City and county data for July was unavailable.
“Our economic recovery is nuanced, and many Missourians haven’t been able to return to work because they still have children home from school, jobs aren’t available in their areas, or they are caring for loved ones who are at greater risk of developing severe reactions if exposed to COVID,” said Amy Blouin, president and CEO of the Missouri Budget Project. “The resurgence of COVID cases resulting from the Delta variant is further evidence Missouri’s decision to end federal unemployment assistance was ill-timed.”
For Culton, who recently rebranded her business to Love + Soul by Elicia, her family will keep pushing on for now.
“We just do our best, that’s where we go from here,” she said. “We just do our best and continue to do the best we can like we’ve been doing ever since.”
MJWJ wrote in a statement that given the success of similar lawsuits in Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Maryland, they look forward to a court outcome that supports Missouri families “through times of crisis – rather than scoring points with its corporate donors.”