Ashley Deetz cleans the bar area at Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in downtown Eau Claire Thursday afternoon before the restaurant opened. People working at restaurants, taverns and other service sector jobs have been among the hardest hit financially by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Ashley Deetz cleans the bar area at Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in downtown Eau Claire Thursday afternoon before the restaurant opened. People working at restaurants, taverns and other service sector jobs have been among the hardest hit financially by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“Listen to us. Hear our stories.” People struggling with pandemic recession want Biden’s plan taken up quickly.

A year ago Aaron Brewster was busy working as a deejay at weddings and leading trivia games at taverns and other venues, able to earn a living and pay his bills while doing a job he enjoyed.

But like many across the US and around the world, the 37-year-old Eau Claire resident’s situation changed drastically with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. When bars and restaurants shut down last March because of the virus, and weddings were delayed or cancelled, Brewster’s gigs went up in smoke along with many other Americans involved in the food and hospitality industries. Now he is among the bipartisan majority of Wisconsinites who have become frustrated at the slow pace of relief and support a stimulus package offered by President Joe Biden.

Along with hundreds of thousands of other Wisconsin residents, Brewster applied for unemployment insurance payments. And like so many others, he experienced a long wait for those payments from an outdated system overwhelmed by demand. In fact, in part because of a mix-up on his end, Brewster said he has yet to receive any unemployment money. 

Without his normal work as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Brewster has picked up odd jobs where he can. But those meager earnings—along with overdue unemployment benefits—aren’t enough to pay his bills, and he said he now requires assistance from his family to make ends meet. 

“I thought the process would have worked itself out by now, that I would have received some payment,” Brewster said. “But I’m losing faith that’s going to happen.”

Brewster has plenty of company among Wisconsin residents and other Americans who continue to struggle financially as the pandemic goes on, and as the coronavirus-related death toll has topped 500,000. To address those needs, Biden has introduced a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. 

Eau Claire resident Aaron Brewster is among millions of Americans struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic. Brewster, 37, lost his job as a deejay and trivia contest organizer nearly a year ago when the pandemic prompted the delay or cancellation of weddings and significantly reduced customer numbers at taverns and restaurants. He is among many hoping Congress approves the most recent round of COVID-19-related assistance. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Brewster)

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Friday on the proposal that includes $1,400 payments to adults, a $400 per-week unemployment bonus, payments of up to $3,600 per child, and money to assist the COVID-19 vaccination process along with funding to schools and local governments. 

The proposal faces widespread opposition from Republicans, some of whom have called it a Democratic wish list. The House bill includes a measure to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, but a ruling late Thursday that it cannot be passed by a simple majority vote all but ensures it won’t be approved in the Senate.   

Recent polls show most Americans favor Biden’s relief measures. A Morning Consult/Politico survey found 76% of respondents support aid payments, and 66% backed them in a poll by The Economist and YouGov.  

Earlier: What the First Actions from President Biden Could Mean for Wisconsin

Count Madison resident Amy Midle among those who say government needs to act more quickly to supply more relief to people like her in need of it. Middle, who operates a deejay company, married in 2019 and she and her husband began saving money to buy a house. 

Then the pandemic surfaced in Wisconsin, and 90% of the events she had scheduled in 2020 were cancelled. Her husband has maintained his job at an auto dealership, Midle said, but the couple’s savings has disappeared, used up to pay for basic necessities. 

“Now we have no savings. Now I am worried about where rent is going to come from,” she said during a virtual event Thursday night organized by Opportunity Wisconsin, which describes itself as “a coalition of Wisconsin residents fighting for an economy that works for working people.”

Opportunity Wisconsin launched a $1 million statewide TV ad campaign on Feb. 16 urging Republican US Sen. Ron Johnson, of Oshkosh, to stop opposing coronavirus relief aid that would help people in need. Johnson has voted against such assistance previously, citing concerns about the federal deficit and inflation. 

Midle said Johnson is out of touch with his constituents when it comes to recognizing the needs that many face amid pandemic struggles. 

“Stop it. Stop thinking about your income, stop thinking about your savings account,” she said in reference to Johnson, “and start thinking about what other people are going through. Listen to us, hear our stories.”

Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, another speaker at the event, is a UW-Eau Claire professor whose husband was laid off for a time during the pandemic. She said lawmakers must do a better job of addressing people’s needs. Her family will be fine financially, she said, but many others have been forced to make difficult choices between paying rent or buying food, gas, or other necessities. 

“I know people who needed three jobs in order to be able to pay for all their living expenses,” she said. “They lost one of them, but because they were part-time jobs, they can’t get relief.”

Tricia Peterson operates a childcare center in Juneau and said many of her clients are unable to make timely payments because of reduced work hours or lost jobs due to the pandemic. She urged Congress to approve another aid package to help the many who need it. 

“I see families that work their butts off and they can’t make ends meet,” she said.

Brewster is hopeful Congress will approve the latest round of coronavirus-related assistance, hopeful he will at some point receive unemployment benefits, hopeful for the day when he can return to his job. So many of the people he knows, especially those who worked in the services industry, are in desperate need of help, he said. 

“Everywhere you look you see people struggling,” he said. “The economic fallout of the pandemic continues. Congress needs to do something about it as fast as they can.”