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As GOP-led states end enhanced unemployment benefits, the Biden administration struggles to find a way to get workers funding

Nearly 4 million Americans could start seeing enhanced unemployment benefits end next month, the Labor Department is struggling to find a way to keep unemployed workers from being cut off as the clock ticks down. An official told CBS News the federal government paying the benefits to some unemployed Americans directly is "pretty much off the table."

The department is facing pressure from Democratic lawmakers and progressive groups to act as a growing number of Republican-led states have announced they will opt out of the federal program created in the wake of the pandemic. 

At least 24 GOP-led states have announced this month that they will be ending enhanced unemployment benefits early. This includes the $300 a week supplemental benefits, as well as in nearly all cases the program for gig workers and self-employed individuals who do not qualify for traditional unemployment and the program for those facing long term unemployment. The state leaders claim their states have plenty of jobs and the benefits deter people from working. 

"It's cruel, it's ugly, it's insidious and it's a lie," said Sharon Corpening, about that argument. The 60-year-old Roswell, Georgia resident was freelancing in advertising and copywriting until the pandemic hit. As such, she did not qualify for traditional unemployment, but was able to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the CARES Act, part of coronavirus relief efforts passed under President Trump that offered benefits to workers in fields not eligible for traditional benefits. 

When some state officials and business groups claim the job market is booming as the pandemic subsides, that does not mean immediate employment opportunities for her as a longtime career professional. She has been actively job hunting and networking, but she is pushing to use her expertise. And as someone with fibromyalgia, she also has health concerns.

"Them pulling the plug on this a couple months short makes a critical difference," Corpening said. "They've cast this wide net, and it's devastating. Even just a few months, it means they're forcing people out of their careers."

Many of the states announcing an end to benefits have lower vaccination rates, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. For 58-year-old Cindy Lang of Parma, Ohio, who is also the caretaker of her disabled parents, health is still a very real concern. When the pandemic hit, it took more than two months for the self-employed painter to receive unemployment benefits under the CARES Act.

"I'm sorry, the 400 bucks a week is like two days of my normal pay, so why would I not want to get back to work? The math doesn't add up," said Lang. "It's not that we don't want to work out here. We absolutely want to work, but I'm still protecting my parents. I'm only going to start working for clients that I trust to wear masks or have been vaccinated." 

The Labor Department also disagrees with state GOP leaders. One official called the situation "catastrophic." But even if the Labor Department had the authority to provide benefits on its own, setting up the technology to do so could take months. And the department would have to obtain the unemployment data — which would need to be provided by the states now choosing to opt out.

In a letter last week to the Labor secretary, Senator Bernie Sanders said the department was "congressionally-mandated" to provide Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for workers ineligible for state aid and to ensure they receive such benefits, but even fot that program, while the legislative language is different, it still relies on the the states having an agreement with the secretary. 

Having unemployment benefits continue may require Congress to amend the CARES Act. 

Some states say they will end the program as early as June 12. States are required to send the Labor Department a letter notifying them at least 30 days out of their decision to end their agreement. The Labor Department is still working out what will be included in its response to each state — pending their determination on the administration's next steps. 

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