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Call to Action: #Extend PUA: Industry efforts to get support from Washington

Michael S. Eddy • Call to ActionCurrent IssueOctober 2020 • September 30, 2020

There have been a lot of advocacy groups and call to actions that have grown out of the needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. As an industry, many have joined together for a common goal—to get the support needed so individuals can survive the dire economic realities, and so theaters, shops and manufacturers are still viable while holding on until theater and live entertainment are again safely and economically feasible. We look this month at those efforts to unite our industry’s voice. 

First a quick glossary:

PUA– Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provides payments to workers not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits (self-employed, independent contractors, workers with limited work history, and others) who are unable to work as a direct result of the coronavirus public health emergency.

FPUC– Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation is an additional $600/week for every person who is currently collecting a regular UI (Unemployment Insurance) or PUA claim. It was capped at 13 weeks and expired July 25, 2020.

LWA– Lost Wage Assistance is a program created via Presidential Memorandum giving up to $400 assistance to UI and PUA claimants with up to $300 federal funds from FEMA and $100 from the individual state.

Looking to pull together as an industry of independent workers as well as seeing a larger societal need for the tools to unify our voice, ExtendPUA.org was created by two live event industry people—Stephanie Freed and Grant McDonald. Before the pandemic shutdown, co-director Freed was a production electrician for theater, events, and fashion shows. McDonald was a video director for theater and concert touring. When they realized that the $600 of the FPUC was going to be running out, they looked to take action, but didn’t find the tools needed to advocate for people, so they created them with the website www.extendpua.org.

ExtendPUA.org is an excellent site that is constantly being updated with tools and ways to make your voice heard in Washington, D.C. We highly recommend you check it out and use it to spread the word and get help for all who are unemployed due to the pandemic. Recently, Stage Directions spoke with Freed about their advocacy efforts for everyone who finds themselves in need of this assistance and what every one of us can do to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C. as we try to make a difference at this critical economic time. 

The Mission

ExtendPUA.org’s mission statement includes: “We want every person to take bold action in advancing and expanding fair and inclusive COVID response legislation for The People, with an urgent emphasis on the extension of the FPUC $600/wk payments in full. We offer tools and talking points to make it easy. We want every person informed and well-spoken on this issue, as well as empowered and supported in taking action that makes a difference. This is a community problem and it is not unsolvable. We especially want to encourage our industry, the Arts and Entertainment industry, to use the microphone at our feet to make demands for our own needs, but also for the needs of all of the people who don’t have the same access.”

Freed explains the impetus to create ExtendPUA.org. “It was at the tail-end of June when we were just trying to survive a pandemic and then we realized that this lifeline, the $600, that we were surviving on personally, was going to be cut. And there was this huge ripple effect in the industry; everyone was starting to see what was about to happen—it was going to expire before we could go back to work. At the same time, there was all this energy going on around the premiere of the streaming of Hamilton; ‘if you loved Hamilton, all the people in this industry are unemployed and really need help right now.’ So, we saw all this hashtagging and all this activism and you could see people were starting to panic about the financial situation. All these creative, go-getters and most of us not in this kind of situation before. So, Grant and I asked ourselves, ‘how do we advocate for what we need? And how do we do it effectively?’ Grant has a little bit of a political background, but I’ve never been particularly politically active. We looked around and couldn’t find the tools to pull everyone together so we compiled them and put them out there so others could use them.” They created ExtendPUA.org and have continued to build and refine the site and its tool kit of resources to act. https://www.extendpua.org/toolkit

What is What

Freed, McDonald, and their team really dug down into all of the federal jargon—explaining what the alphabet soup means—and building out a site with thorough explanations and tools to reach out to Senators to take action to help people. One big underlying message is that the full $600 is so important to help people weather this pandemic-induced storm. “Unemployment Insurance is not a livable wage anywhere; it is meant to be a band aid for people who are between jobs,” explains Freed. “We’re in a pandemic where there aren’t jobs to be had. So, our government bipartisanly made the smart choice and gave us a lifeline, which was creating an amount that we could all live on. Without it, we can’t survive and there’s still not jobs for everyone. So, we need that full $600 to live.”

The reinstatement and the amount has been a constantly changing point of debate in Washington D.C. ever since the FPUC expired on July 25th. While the House of Representatives passed another COVID relief bill, that bill got no traction in the Senate. In the meantime, the White House came out with a presidential memorandum—Memorandum on Authorizing the Other Needs Assistance Program for Major Disaster Declarations Related to Coronavirus Disease 2019—that had some money allocated for continue the additional UI assistance (up to $400 with LWA) but it was using funds from FEMA and the rest from the states (who don’t have the money themselves) to fund the help. More recently the Senate introduced the ‘skinny bill’ which failed to pass a vote and now the political stalemate continues in the congress. 

Neither offer much help as Freed notes, “The presidential memorandum is tricky for a lot of reasons, but one of them is simply that it’s a memorandum; it’s not a bill passed by Congress. The President can change a memorandum anytime he wants. He can do whatever he wants with it. It’s also not acceptable because it takes money from FEMA’s disaster fund while we have fires and hurricanes happening rather than being Congressionally passed funding. It’s already run out in some states. And frankly, the $300 is just not enough; the $600 was chosen for a reason. It was chosen because it gives a living wage in most places. UI in Oklahoma is $44 a week on average. So, giving them $300 means they’re living on $344, which is still not tenable for a lot of people in a situation where they’re completely surviving on the money that they’re being given at this point. Also, another big problem with the memorandum is that it is written so if you make less than $100 in UI or PUA, you don’t get the additional $300. Meaning if you get that $44 a week, you can’t get the $300 additional. That’s just cruel. It’s just making it so the people who have the least are the ones who continue to be punished, and we just keep widening that wealth gap.”

Freed notes that current proposals, “Don’t offer an extension of the PUA,” she explains. “It ends December 27th of this year, and I think it’s become pretty clear that this crisis isn’t going to be over by then. The August jobs report showed that job recovery is slowing right now, and we’re still without 11.5 million jobs, and we’re getting fewer jobs back every month. Not extending that amount is really scary to us. It doesn’t offer any kind of rent relief; it doesn’t offer any kind of stimulus like people have been hoping for. And again, the $300 just isn’t the right number. Why are we cutting the benefit that was working in half, when the circumstances haven’t changed?”

Beyond a Single Industry or Single Act

Freed also noted the confusion between ExtendPUA efforts and the RESTART efforts. “This is such an important issue, because I think it’s gotten a little confused in our industry by some of the recent movements and pushes for RESTART. RESTART is small businesses legislation, which is an important effort but it’s not a comprehensive solution for the industry. It doesn’t include anything about enhanced unemployment or rent relief or healthcare relief or extended PUA or FPUC. The RESTART Act is not a comprehensive answer to our industry’s problems, so while it is an important effort, it can’t be the only effort. We need to also help individuals, especially freelancers, who cannot return to or find work and will not be able to for some time. That is why it is so important that extending PUA and fully funded FPUC are part of any industry push for relief from Congress.

ExtendPUA.org has expanded to everyone who’s unemployed, not just those in the arts and culture industry. “We are not industry-specific anymore,” comments Freed. “I don’t know if we ever were exactly industry specific. We quickly realized that this was a bigger problem than just us, though obviously our industry is hit so hard and we’re watching it hit all of our friends. But as soon as we started researching how to be advocates for this issue, we realized how big the issue was. People are excluded from PUA completely and aren’t receiving anything either because of purposeful exclusions, accidental oversights for mixed earners, or backlogged claims. They didn’t receive FPUC and don’t receive any PUA or UI. So those people are getting left behind.” 

Freed continues, “The issue is just so much bigger than us. Our mission has always been to advocate for our industry, but also to encourage our industry to advocate for everyone. Because we feel, here we are, this machine of entertainment, full of powerful people and big ideas and access to a microphone and why shouldn’t we help others? If we can gain access and attention to the issue, why shouldn’t we use it to advocate for everybody?”

You CAN Make a Difference

When asked about overcoming people being pessimistic and thinking that they cannot make a difference. Freed’s response is, “I think a lot of people feel that way. I feel that way at least for an hour every day because it’s hard and it is hard to feel like they’re not listening. It is hard to have been advocating for, however many months, and pushing hard. People are screaming at the government right now; lots of people, for lots of different things. And they’re stalled because of partisan politics. It is hard to feel like you are making a difference, but if we don’t do it, no difference is made. So, I say that we have to do this. And it is clear that some difference has been made. At first it was no more money for PUA and now they are talking about at least $300. It does work. It is not completed yet because they’ve gotten into their own little toxic cycle of partisanship. But I think they are feeling the pressure. And if we give up, then we have no power at all.” 

Go to www.extendpua.org/talkingpoints to get more great facts about extending PUA and the need for FPUC.

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