For Micki Whelan of Biddeford, life changed dramatically this year.

In the middle of March, the pandemic put a screeching halt to a jewelry-making business she began more than 35 years ago.

“My income went from a very healthy amount, month over month, year over year, to zero,” she said.  “That started on March 15 and it continues to this day.”

State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, speaks during a Labor and Housing Committee meeting June 4 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Whelan spoke out Friday afternoon as part of a virtual news conference hosted by Maine progressive leaders and Democratic lawmakers. They urged Congress to end its gridlock and pass a COVID-19 relief package that they say is necessary to fuel the state’s economic recovery and help Mainers struggling during the pandemic-induced recession.

She said her business stayed afloat thanks to the weekly $600 enhanced unemployment benefit passed as part of the federal CARES Act. That provision ended July 31. When it did, Whelan’s mindset changed.

“I felt myself pulling in,” she said. “I felt myself thinking, ‘I have to be so much more careful now.’ ”

She said can’t continue to support her local fishmonger. She can’t offer monetary help to fellow artists in more dire straits.

“Now I’ve got to think of myself first and my own well-being,” she said. “Everybody has closed in a little bit more. There’s a mental fatigue and a there’s a financial fatigue that doesn’t have to be there.”

In May, House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion bill that would extend the $600 weekly benefit through January and reinstate an already lapsed moratorium on evictions through spring 2021. Last week, Senate Republicans countered with a much more conservative package.

Democratic leaders and White House officials met Friday for the 10th time in 12 days, but those talks broke down again as the two sides remained hundreds of billions of dollars apart on issues including aid to state and local governments. More than 30 million Americans, including roughly 80,000 Mainers, are about to miss their second enhanced jobless benefits check.

“Only the federal government has the borrowing power and other fiscal tools to respond adequately to this crisis and get states like Maine on track for a full recovery,” said Sarah Austin, a tax and budget analyst with the progressive Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Kennebec, and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, called on Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate to help break the impasse.

Bellows, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in 2014, said many of her constituents are desperately trying to hold on.

“Losing the federal unemployment assistance was a major blow to households across Maine, as well as our entire economy, and it’s a pain that was entirely preventable,” said Bellows, chair of the Senate’s Labor Committee. “My colleagues and I in the Maine Legislature are doing all we can to help, but we really need our federal delegation to step up and act.”

Gattine said allowing the enhanced unemployment benefit to expire last week was a “disgraceful and a real failure by our federal government. That was a watershed moment that I hope everybody took note of. We just need to keep the pressure on until we get real action, because people are suffering.”

Dan Adams, 41, is a truck driver from Garland who has three preteen children. He was laid off from a job collecting food waste from restaurants and delivering it to a farm in Exeter where it is mixed with cow manure and converted into electricity.

The extra $600 on top of his state unemployment check nearly matched his previous weekly income. He’s concerned about school clothes for his kids and keeping up with mortgage and vehicle payments, as well as the cost of insulin to treat his diabetes.

“I’m not really sure how I’m going to make ends meet,” Adams said. “I’ve got a little bit of a cushion, but it’s not much and it’s dwindling quick.”

Like Whelan, Adams said he noticed an abrupt change once the $600 safety net disappeared.

“Without it, it’s very stressful,” he said. “You start to think about yourself only. You don’t think about the other people around us. This is destroying not only households, but communities as well.”

Whelan rejects the argument from some politicians and pro-business leaders that the $600 additional benefit provided a disincentive to return to work.

“This is something that we’ve earned,” she said. “Anybody who implies that a $600-a-week benefit is more money than we would have earned normally, and that’s why people aren’t going back to work, is dead wrong.”

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