It’s clear that the current bureaucracy in the United States is unable to handle the overwhelming influx of people in need—earlier this month, VICE tried to get through to unemployment offices in all 50 states, and only two states picked up. In many cases, even the benefits that do exist aren’t necessarily enough. The Paycheck Protection Program’s funds ran out last week and most workers that VICE talked to this month said that the $1,200 stimulus checks will barely cover their expenses. Bowen expects to receive $1,700 in total with his son, which he said will essentially cover one month of rent and his car payment.“I don’t know what I’ll do if this goes into June,” Bowen said. “I might try to literally hit up my friends and my community and say basically that I’ll work for money and food. Beyond that, I got nothing.”During economic downturns, Germany relies on its Kurzarbeit policy. Through this program, businesses apply for short-term work subsidies, in lieu of laying off their employees. The government will then pay 60 percent of an employees’ salary to keep them afloat. This keeps workers on payroll with their company and allows them to preserve their official relationships with their employers.“In principle, once the pandemic is more or less under control, there’s no reason why the [German] economy should not restart in a moment's notice,” Ruediger Bachmann, a German-American professor of macroeconomics at the University of Notre Dame, said to VICE. He pointed out that it wasn’t just that workers got their pay subsidized, but that the German government also provides assistance for firms’ other costs to help keep them going.
Depending on how their country is handling the situation, the first month of this historic recession has gone drastically different for different workers.
Flohr, a German, said he expects to receive 60 percent of his salary from Kurzarbeit, with his company contributing an extra 30 percent. He won’t miss a paycheck. Bowen, an American, is waiting to get through to the unemployment office so he can receive an enhanced $971-per-week unemployment benefit.
The United States’ Paycheck Protection Program is also a somewhat similar scheme, although it’s limited to small businesses and, as previously noted, the program received far from enough funding, running out last week. It’s also somewhat in contradiction with the country’s existing reliance on unemployment insurance—for many firms and workers, it’s difficult to calculate whether they would get more from being laid off and applying for unemployment or from getting their paycheck subsidized under this new system. Hassel pointed out that if someone does get laid off in Germany, they would still get the same 60 percent of their salary from unemployment insurance.And then there is one stress that is uniquely American: the issue of health care. Because of our country’s dependence on employer-sponsored health insurance, many people who lose their jobs are also losing their insurance. Plus, there are nearly 30 million people who didn’t have insurance in the first place, all of whom are now living through a pandemic with a fraught relationship with the country’s wildly unaffordable medical system.Bowen, who has been uninsured for about a year, said he is almost certain he was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms two weeks ago. He couldn’t get off the couch without feeling out of breath and started seeing spots in his vision. “It was so intense,” Bowen said. He didn’t want to go to a doctor out of fear of what it might cost, but his mother and friend finally convinced him to make an appointment with the local research hospital. He was seen by a doctor over video and the bill came in later at $400. Bowen said he can’t see himself paying that anytime soon.
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Flohr said that he and his coworkers are definitely worried. “As an airline employee, if you see planes on the ground, it’s never good,” he said. If the recession stretches too long, Flohr is afraid that they will see layoffs too. But for now, he’s pretty certain he will resume his job.Bowen thinks he’ll be hired back again as well, but he’s nervous that the restaurant might shut down completely. More imminently, he’s worried about all the unpaid bills adding up and pushing him further into debt. He points out that, like many Americans, he’s been in a precarious balancing act for years. It wouldn’t have taken much to throw his financial life off the rails, but this is one of the worst possible scenarios.“When life goes back to normal, I’m going to be at the lowest rung of the ladder,” Bowen said. “I’m not going to have anything, and I’m going to be so behind on all my bills. It’s just going to be an avalanche.”
When he started exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, Bowen avoided going to the doctor as long as he could because he is uninsured. Even if Flohr were laid off, he said he would still be covered by the German government. As Flohr put it, “Nobody ever asks themselves in Germany, ‘Can I go to the doctor or not?’”