Mandy Bock lost her job last year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn't been able to find work. She says Gov. Jim Justice's decision to end federal unemployment benefits has made her life harder. Photo by Douglas Soule.

PARKERSBURG —Mandy Bock is still wearing the contact lenses she got in early May. She should have swapped them out after two weeks, but she’s rationing them, alternating with a pair of broken glasses.

“I’m afraid to [buy new contacts] because what if I need that money for something else?” Bock said. “I’ve got two credit cards that are up higher than I would like them to be. I don’t like being in debt at all.”

Bock, who lives in Waverly, about a 20-minute drive from Parkersburg, got laid off from her department store job at the beginning of the pandemic. While some West Virginia businesses have complained they haven’t been able to find workers, Bock said she hasn’t been able to find a job. She managed to get contracted work from November to December but has been unemployed since. 

“I’ll be 42 this year,” Bock said. “I’ve never had this kind of a struggle to find a job or to get interviews or at least a phone call.”

Another challenge in the job search: Since her boyfriend works long hours and is on the road a lot, Bock says she needs to find a position that allows her to care for and work around the school schedule of her 8-year-old daughter and her boyfriend’s 12-year-old son.

And, because of Gov. Jim Justice, she’s lost more than $400 a week in federal pandemic unemployment benefits as she continues her job search. 

Justice ended all federally-funded pandemic unemployment compensation programs on June 19. He said the programs, such as an extra $300 weekly payment to people who were already getting unemployment, discouraged people from finding work.

Recent research casts doubts on the premise, and the limited state unemployment data that has come out since the program’s end does not indicate the decision has achieved close to its intended effect. 

Overall, Bock said she knows there are a lot of other people out there worse off. Her boyfriend has a job that covers the bills, and, if things ever got too bad, their parents could help out.

“If I was on my own, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” she said.

No sign the plan has worked

Originally, West Virginia’s federal unemployment benefits were set to expire in September, as they still are in many other states. But word had begun to spread that businesses were struggling to find workers, and some blamed those benefits.

One of those people was the governor. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. Photo courtesy Governor’s Office.

“We got plenty of folks that are hurting, and I’m not speaking of those folks in any way, but you’ve got a lot, a lot, a lot of folks that are scamming the whole system,” Justice said during a press briefing two days before announcing his decision to stop the benefits. “They’re taking dollars that was meant to really help them, and some folks are saying, ‘Look, I’m better off not working, I can go trout fishing this afternoon.’

“Our businesses are pleading with our people. We got to have you back to work.” 

Justice said he was looking at adding an incentive for people to return to work — some states have offered residents a return-to-work bonus. That never materialized. 

At least 26 states moved to end the federal benefit programs early. But economists say there have been no clear job gains from the move, and a number of recent studies have backed that up. Yale University researchers found that unemployment benefits did not discourage people to return to the workforce even when they were receiving weekly $600 supplemental payments in addition to unemployment, and a group of economists found there was no evidence that the benefits “drove job losses or slowed rehiring.” 

A week before Justice ended the federal COVID-19 benefits, tens of thousands West Virginians were claiming them, including those who weren’t eligible for normal unemployment benefits or because their benefits had expired, according to U.S. Department of Labor data

Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said recent data has disproved Justice’s hypothesis that getting rid of the benefits would lead people to rejoin the workforce. 

Since Justice ended the federal unemployment benefits, the number of people stopping their state unemployment claims (which could be  a sign they’ve returned to work) has slowed, according to DOL data. 

From June 19, the date the federal benefits were stopped, to July 17, the average weekly decline in continued unemployment claims was 452. For the previous 17 weeks, that average drop was 608, according to a Mountain State Spotlight analysis.

“Our state claims are not going down any faster than they were in the months that the $300 enhanced benefit was in place,” said O’Leary, who has collected the data over multiple years. “Claims have continued but the pace has actually slowed down compared to what we were seeing in the months before.” 

A survey published by the jobs website Indeed in June found that while unemployment benefits are a factor in people not being “urgent” about returning to work, they’re not as big a factor as COVID fears and responsibilities like caring for children and elderly adults. 

“It can be very expensive to get a job,” said Marybeth Beller, an associate professor of political science at Marshall University. “Sometimes people are putting out more for childcare or eldercare than they’re actually able to make when they get a paycheck that’s fairly low wage, and then remove the commuting expenses from that.”

Beller said Justice’s decision, touted as something that would help businesses, could have an adverse effect on them. That’s because without these federal benefits, some will have less money to spend in their communities. 

The lawsuit

Two West Virginia women who lost their federal unemployment benefits are suing WorkForce West Virginia Commissioner Scott Adkins for that decision.

Lawyers for Mountain State Justice, which provides legal advocacy for low-income state residents, filed a lawsuit on their behalf last week in Kanawha County Circuit Court. 

They hope to renew the benefits and claim the termination violates state law requiring the commissioner to secure West Virginians “all advantages available” in the federal unemployment system. 

There will be a hearing on Thursday, August 12. The judge on the case is Maryclaire Akers, who was appointed by Justice in March. 

Similar lawsuits have been successful in Indiana and Maryland; a judge ruled in Arkansas that the state has to restart the payments while he considers the case.  

Rebecca Urie, one of the women named in the suit, worked at a South Charleston laboratory and delivered food for DoorDash when COVID-19 hit. The laboratory then laid its employees off, and she had to quit the delivery job due to pandemic concerns: both she and her two children are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. 

She has applied to an average of 25 to 50 jobs monthly since May 2020, according to the lawsuit. Urie, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminology and associate degrees in radiology and phlebotomy, has had no luck getting one. 

Urie said she’s been told she’s overqualified, she underqualified and that they’ve run out spots. 

“It never gets to the points of, ‘OK, we’d like to hire you, what’s your availability?’” she said. 

Before the pandemic, she said she was making $3,000 a month. When she lost her benefits on June 19, she was getting $325 a week.

The only help she’s getting right now are Social Security benefits she receives because of her youngest child and food stamps. She’s also able to get Medicaid and in-home assistance to care for her children through the state Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities Waiver.

But it’s not enough. Urie’s children are homeschooled and have autism, creating costs for both teaching supplies and therapy. To make sure she has the money needed to care for her kids, Urie has even stopped getting injections for her multiple sclerosis over the past two months.

“When I have my shots, I don’t have any problems,” she said. “[Now] I’m having a lot of issues, especially with my legs. Muscles draw up and lock up and they aren’t as functional. Occasionally, I have to break out a cane.” 

Urie had to give up WiFi at the end of June, which makes it even more difficult to find a job. And she’s worried about being able to pay her other future bills. She had her utilities shut off several times throughout the pandemic, but federal money always allowed her to pay to get them back.

She urged the governor to walk 24 hours in her shoes.

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly listed the date of the lawsuit’s hearing. It is on August 12.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...