Changes to extra $600 unemployment benefit could create ‘serious disruptions’ in RI

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Any significant changes made to the federal unemployment program that pays out an additional $600 per week could seriously disrupt the state’s ability to disburse benefits, according to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training director.

The federal CARES Act benefit created four months ago to help out-of-work Americans during the pandemic is expected to end after next week, meaning thousands of Rhode Islanders currently receiving unemployment checks will see a major drop off in income.

Congress has returned from recess this week to start discussing the possibility of extending, changing or eliminating the $600-per-week program, which DLT Director Scott Jensen said could damage his agency’s ability to handle the state’s high volume of unemployment claims each week.

“If say that number went up or down by $100 or $200 … and we had a couple of weeks, we could do it without interruption,” Jensen said. “If the formula is more complicated … that is a much more challenging programming endeavor.”

“We’ll do it as fast as we can, we’ll stay up all night to do it, but I would expect serious disruption for people on unemployment benefits, depending on what kind of benefit Congress puts together,” he added.

Democrats, including the Rhode Island congressional delegation, largely support a continuation of the program, arguing it has helped Americans make ends meet and avoid missing key payments, such as mortgages and rent.

Republicans support changing the program or ending it altogether, arguing the qualifying factors to receive the extra cash each week are too broad, and, in some cases, the $600 is incentivizing many to remain unemployed.

Since March 10, tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders have filed roughly 300,000 claims for unemployment insurance and pandemic unemployment assistance, which are two separate programs that come with the added benefit.

The June unemployment rate totaled 12.4%, with upward of 68,000 people listed as unemployed, according to a jobs report released last week.

Unemployment insurance typically covers about 40-50% of lost income, according to Jensen, who warns spending patterns could change if the extra $600 is eliminated.

“If Congress doesn’t act and the president doesn’t sign the bill, it’s going to be very difficult for people to keep making the kinds of spending choices that they’re making now,” Jensen said.

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