Back in March, Sandy Villatoro was laid off from her job as a housekeeper at a hotel in downtown Phoenix. But the weekly $600 unemployment payment she had been receiving during the coronavirus pandemic kept her family afloat — until that benefit expired last week.
The mother of two children is still paying off hospital bills from her pregnancy last year. She also needed to upgrade the family's Internet service so her son could keep up with his school's remote learning. At the same time, Villatoro's husband, a roofer whose work has slowed during the pandemic, isn't bringing in enough money to cover the family's bills.
"My bills were piling up," she said. "It was so fast that I couldn't keep up with it."
Initially, her status as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which grants protections to people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — made her nervous about applying for unemployment benefits. But as she learned from a Facebook group, being a DACA recipient doesn't disqualify her from unemployment assistance.
She used the $600 in weekly aid to get ahead on her monthly car payments, hoping that if her unemployment benefits were ever cut off, she might get a break on late payments in the future.
Villatoro prides herself on being a smart budgeter, but without the weekly payments, she's not sure how she will make ends meet in the coming weeks.
"I feel so vulnerable," she said. "I hate asking for help, I hate asking for a handout, but it's something I need at the current moment, my kids need it. It's so hard just to even say I need it."
The possibility that she could lose her home keeps Villatoro up at night.
"It's not wants that we want — it's needs. We need a vehicle to get back and forth. We need to live under a house, you know, under a roof," she said. "I don't want to be homeless."
Villatoro is among the 17.8 million Americans who are unemployed. Meanwhile, Congress remains in a deadlock on whether to renew that $600 benefit.
Before the pandemic hit, Villatoro's union fought to earn her and her colleagues higher pay. She wants to go back to work at the hotel, where she can make more money than she had been getting on unemployment.
"We're not lazy people — we're hardworking people that just need a little bit of help for now," she said. "I don't want to lose my job; I don't want to lose my house; I don't want to lose my car or anything that I worked so hard for."
Elena Burnett and Courtney Dorning produced this audio for broadcast.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Six hundred dollars a week - for millions of people who have lost their jobs in this pandemic, that $600 is all that stood between them and financial ruin. That benefit expired on July 31. And now Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked on whether to extend it. And we wanted to hear from people who had been getting that money and understand what it means to lose it. Sandy Villatoro lives in Phoenix, Ariz. She's the mother of two. And she was laid off from her job as a hotel housekeeper in March. She lost her extra benefits last month, and she says since then, it's been really hard to ask for help.
SANDY VILLATORO: Well, at first I didn't want to apply for unemployment because - I don't know if I'm allowed to say this - but I have DACA, and my husband is also petitioning for me. So, like, I didn't really want to apply for unemployment benefits. And then I'm in a group on Facebook with a bunch of DACA recipients, and they're like, no, unemployment has nothing to do with that. It's paid by your employer, so you should be fine. So I was like, OK, maybe I should because my bills are piling up. My husband's check wasn't enough for all the bills that we had before I was laid off. And I had a lot of bills from when I had my daughter still coming in from the hospital. So it was all just coming so fast that I couldn't keep up with it.
VANEK SMITH: The extra $600 that you were getting - what difference did that $600 make in your ability to survive and for your family to survive?
VILLATORO: Honestly, it helped me pay for all the bills that I had. I actually used some of that money to pay ahead on my car. So I thought ahead, like, with all the money that I was getting from the 600. I was paying ahead, like, the bills that I could possibly, like, tell them, hey, you know, can I not pay it this month just in case, you know?
VANEK SMITH: And now that you don't have it?
VILLATORO: I'm going to have to work with what I can and ask them if they could, you know, help me with a couple months where I don't have to pay it.
VANEK SMITH: And what are, like, your - you and your husband's biggest expenses? Like, what are kind of the top few things that you have to pay first or, I guess, the biggest expenses?
VILLATORO: Mostly our house. The - we're renting a house, and that's a thousand dollars a month. I had to get Internet service for my son since he started going back to school. And the service that we had before was, like, the cheapest one. So we had to get another better one 'cause the one that we had before was not working for his remote learning. So it's not like wants that we want. It's needs. You know, we need a vehicle to get back and forth. We need to live under a house, you know, under a roof.
VANEK SMITH: It sounds like rent is a worry. And that's a very basic need, especially with a new baby.
VILLATORO: Yeah, exactly, especially in this heat. I don't want to be, you know, having to move house to house in the heat. I don't want to be homeless, if anything, in this heat. So it's really hard. And we just want someone to, like, listen to us. We're not lazy people. We're hardworking people that just need a little bit of help for now.
VANEK SMITH: Is homelessness, like, a real worry? That's a lot.
VILLATORO: Honestly, it is. It is. And I've stayed up nights just hoping that some miracle will come that I don't have to resort to that (ph) or, you know, having to ask someone to let me stay with them for, like, a little while I get back on my feet. I feel so vulnerable. Like, I don't - I hate asking for help. I hate asking for hands-out (ph). But, you know, it's something I need at the current moment. My kids need it. You know, it's so hard just to even say I need it.
VANEK SMITH: So as you're looking ahead, like, to the next month or two without that additional money, what is the thing that worries you the most?
VILLATORO: Just losing my mind and losing my house, losing everything that I've worked so hard for. I mean, like, I want to go back to work. I worked every day for, you know, five years at the current job that I'm at. You know, and it's so hard just not to see myself working anymore, you know? And I just want to get back to normal is pretty much what I'm trying to say.
VANEK SMITH: Sandy Villatoro lives in Phoenix, and she's been talking to us about what it is like to deal with financial insecurity during this time.
Sandy, thank you for sharing your story.
VILLATORO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.