Any extension of $600 unemployment benefits would help these jobs most

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A view of new York State Department of labor office in Flushing Queens during coronavirus pandemic on April 12, 2020. (Photo by John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Democrats want to give Americans larger unemployment checks until next year.

Certain workers — particularly those in lower-paying industries like accommodation and food services — stand to benefit from the policy more than others, such as those in finance and insurance.

The difference could be quite stark in certain circumstances.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package enacted in March enhanced unemployment benefits. More than 33 million Americans have filed for jobless pay since mid-March.

One of the law’s main policy tools was to add $600 a week to the benefits Americans already get from states, which paid an average $378 a week pre-pandemic.

The enhancement is set to expire on July 31. Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed extending the increased pay by six months until early 2021 to help manage the economic fallout of Covid-19.

Lower wages, greater benefit

The aim of the weekly enhancement is to replace 100% of wages for the average worker.

That means the $600-a-week supplement would benefit workers in jobs and industries with lower average hourly pay.

Take accommodation and food services businesses, for example.

The industry, which includes hotel and restaurant workers, pays the lowest hourly wage of any industry — $13.45 an hour, or about $28,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s also the fourth-largest industry by number of workers, employing more than 14 million people. It’s been the hardest-hit by the pandemic relative to job loss.

The $600-a-week unemployment enhancement would replace 182% of wages for the typical full-time worker in accommodation and food services, according to a CNBC analysis of U.S. Department of Labor wage and unemployment data.

In other words, the $13.45 hourly wage would become $24.50 an hour. That’s the largest relative jump among any other industry.

The dynamic is similar in retail trade.

With nearly 16 million workers, it’s the country’s third-largest industry and includes retail operations like book stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, florists and department stores.

The average retail worker makes $16.77 an hour, or about $35,000 a year — the third-smallest wage compared with other industries. This worker would replace 146% of prior salary while unemployed.

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The pandemic led the retail and leisure and hospitality industries to shed 7.7 million and 2.1 million jobs, respectively, in April.

Accountants, engineers and attorneys

Conversely, a worker in professional, scientific and technical services — accountants, engineers and attorneys, for example — would generally make less money from unemployment relative to prior salary.

A worker in this field, who makes about $41 an hour, would make 59% of their salary from the unemployment system.

Those in finance and insurance, who make an average $36 an hour, would replace 68% of prior wages.

These fields employ 9.4 million and 6 million people, respectively.

These job and industry analyses, which are on a national level, don’t account for differences in wages and unemployment benefits among states.

States can vary dramatically in the generosity of their jobless pay, both in amount and duration, and some states make it much harder than others to be eligible for and collect benefits.

Difference within industries

There’s even broader variation relative to specific occupations within industries.

Take food services, for example.

There are around 4 million fast-food workers in the U.S., making $11.18 an hour on average. These workers can more than double their prior salary while collecting unemployment, replacing about 219% of pay.

But those in the “chefs and head cooks” category would generally fare worse under the unemployment system — they stand to replace just 90% of their $27-an-hour salaries.

Similarly, in the retail category, a retail salesperson who makes about $14 an hour could nearly double their wage on unemployment via a 173% wage replacement.

Pharmacists, however, normally make more than $60 an hour. They’d replace just 41% of their salaries while collecting unemployment pay.

Democratic lawmakers want to extend eligibility for the $600-a-week extra pay by six months, until Jan. 31 next year. They proposed the extension in the Heroes Act, introduced on Tuesday.

They would allow jobless individuals who apply for unemployment benefits by that date to continue receiving the enhanced pay until March 31, according to Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

The extension would give “some breathing room so Congress doesn’t have to deal with this during a potential transition in [presidential] administration,” Evermore said.

Conservatives have pushed back on the current policy, however, saying it’s a disincentive for some people to go back to work as state economies reopen.

Many experts don’t believe an extension of the $600 is likely for this reason, but think lawmakers could coalesce around offering a smaller weekly sum.

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