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Unemployed Houstonians, HEROES Act supporters demonstrate and distribute food outside Sen. Cornyn’s office

HOUSTON – Houstonians who are out of work demonstrated outside U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s office Tuesday with the aim of getting him to support the HEROES Act, a proposal led by Democrats in Congress. The legislation would extend the CARES Act’s enhanced unemployment benefits provisions.

The provisions in the HEROES Act are the same — $600 weekly unemployment assistance. Since the CARES Act expired in July with final disbursements on July 25, the HEROES Act would extend that provision though January 2021 and longer for others, depending on their circumstances. 

Dozens gathered outside Cornyn’s Rice Military neighborhood office Tuesday. Groups from UNITED HERE, a hospitality workers union that represents about 300,000 airport, restaurant, hotel and casino employees in the U.S. and Canada organized with the Houston Federation of Teachers as well as the Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation to advocate for unemployed workers who said they need the assistance.

“Our members are starving right now. There is a big hit on our industry and 90% of our members lost their jobs,” said Antonio Marques, a UNITED HERE spokesperson and demonstration organizer.

Republicans supported the HEALS Act which, unlike the HEROES Act, proposes a lesser payment to unemployed workers. The provisions proposed in the HEALS Act start with initial $200 weekly payments through September and in October the payments are increased up to $500 per week to match 70% of lost wages when added to state benefits.

Marques was with dozens of others hoping to voice concern over the dire conditions that their families are living in, having little access to food and their inability to pay bills without work. 

“I am currently on cut hours,” said Agape Racella, a catering worker. “[Hours] are very limited, so the money I’m using to support my family is not enough right now.”

“Thinking of some of my students who, without the HEROES Act, are going to be left further behind. They have no food in their kitchen anymore the food aid is once a week,” said Ruth Kravetz with the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Olga Mirelas, who lost work due to the pandemic said she and many people she knows are not able to earn a living because they are not deemed “essential” employees. She said that has left a lot of families struggling to feed their children.

"I am in the same situation as all my friends...We all need money to pay for food and bills," Mirelas said in Spanish.

Senator Cornyn’s office responded to the demonstration with the following statement: 

Sen. Cornyn supports extending an added federal benefit on top of the normal unemployment insurance. Sen. Cornyn supported the additional federal unemployment benefits in the CARES Act and supported its extension in the HEALS Act. Republicans tried several times to extend the added unemployment insurance, but Democrats blocked it from passing the Senate. Sen. Cornyn also introduced a bill to help Texans who are laid off or furloughed to continue on their employer’s health plan through December 31, 2020 (COBRA).