For the past year and a half, Kaila Matteson of Charlestown has worked as a baker at a local coffee shop.  At 32 years old, she's worked in food service for years, having struggled to find a job in her field after graduating from college with an anthropology degree.  When the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to shut down back in March, Matteson found herself unemployed.  Like many other Rhode Islanders, she faced a daunting question.

"How do I pay my bills now?  You know, I have a car to pay for. I have health insurance I have to pay for and right now is not the time to not have health insurance.  It's hard.  You feel stuck.  You feel in limbo."

For the past four months, Matteson has received the weekly federal unemployment benefit.  The $600 payment has been a nice supplement to her state unemployment benefit, which is $400 a week.  But Matteson is now facing the prospect of losing the federal payment, which expires today.

"It kept me above water.  It made sure I had my car paid, my insurance paid, my loans paid.  Now I'm not quite sure how long I'll be able to do those things."

Michael Chicoria of Westerly finds himself in the same boat.  He's a local pianist who lost nearly all of his work this summer because indoor music performances have been cancelled.  Chicoria says the federal benefit has kept him afloat financially.

"Where there was an argument that some people were making more money, that is not true of everyone.  Gig workers like myself, self-employed people who are largely seasonal in many ways are lucky if we break even.  The $600 was a lifeline."

That lifeline is now being severed, at least for the time being, with more than 68,000 Rhode Island workers currently unemployed.  The question is, can the state provide additional financial relief to jobless Rhode Islanders if Congress doesn't extend the federal benefit?  Department of Labor and Training director Scott Jensen puts it rather bluntly.

"No.  With unemployment insurance, the benefit rates are capped by state law.  In order to replace it, the General Assembly would need to convene and pass a completely new unemployment insurance law.  We can't replace that $600 with state money even if we had it and we don't have it."

Jensen says the state is on the verge of exhausting its unemployment trust fund, which means Rhode Island will soon have to borrow federal money to fund state unemployment.  That money will be paid back over time through surcharges and other taxes on local businesses.  In the meantime, Jensen says he expects the federal unemployment benefit to be extended by Congress sooner rather than later.

"I am assuming that they will pass some kind of extension.  I don't know what that is.  We're going to have to calibrate out systems so that when and if that happens, we're going to be able to get those funds to people very quickly."

Kaila Matteson says the fact that the federal unemployment benefit has not been extended shows that politicians don't understand the financial challenges of the working class.

"They haven't had to work a minimum wage job.  They haven't had to juggle three jobs to keep their heads above water.  I think some of them very much mean well and they're trying.  But I think a majority from either side of the aisle just don't have a clue."

Congress is expected to consider a three-month benefit extension next week. 

Joe Tasca can be reached at jtasca@ripr.org