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Unemployment Payments Are Running Out for Millions, Even As Long-Term Unemployment Surges

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Large numbers of jobless workers are seeing their unemployment payments come to an end as they reach their maximum weeks of eligibility despite short-term federal extensions. If Congress fails to act, millions more will suffer a total loss of income as their benefits expire at the end of the year.

The loss of unemployment payments hits workers of color, especially Black workers, the hardest. Because of structural racism, occupational segregation, and discriminatory exclusions from the labor market, Black workers have higher rates of unemployment, longer durations of joblessness, fewer funds to fall back on, and are more likely to live in states with the fewest weeks of available benefits.

An acute crisis looms in the very near term as the number of long-term unemployed workers—those out of work for 26 weeks or longer—is now surging. The seasonally adjusted number of long-term unemployed workers grew from 1.624 million in August to 2.405 million in September, the largest month-over-month increase since these data were first measured.

Historically, the duration of unemployment has been significantly longer for Black and Asian workers than for white workers, due to racist exclusions and other labor market inequities. In the 3rd quarter of 2019, an unemployment spell for Black and Asian workers lasted an average of nearly 26 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for white workers. As of 2019, 25.66 percent of Black unemployed workers were out of work for more than 26 weeks, versus 19.62 percent of white unemployed workers. Keep in mind that the unemployment rate for Black workers is usually about double that for white workers, so Black workers are facing a higher long-term unemployment rate on top of an already higher rate of joblessness.

If Congress fails to extend not only higher benefit levels but also the number of weeks of benefits, millions of unemployed workers will soon have zero income support, and these losses will hit Black and lower-income communities most affected by early layoffs the worst.

HOW MANY WEEKS OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS ARE AVAILABLE UNDER CURRENT PROGRAMS?

Workers in many states may qualify for up to 26 weeks of regular state unemployment insurance. However, after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, 10 states cut benefit duration. Alabama was the last state to do so; in June 2019 it cut benefits to 14 weeks. Three states cut maximums from 26 to 20 weeks (Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina), one state cut maximum benefit duration to 16 weeks (Arkansas), and five states adopted sliding scales tied to state unemployment rates (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Idaho).

Since the start of the pandemic, however, four of those states restored benefits to 26 weeks: Michigan, Kansas, Idaho, and Georgia. Unfortunately, Michigan’s executive order restoring benefits was recently struck down by the state’s Supreme Court, which caused the state to temporarily drop back to 20 weeks until emergency temporary legislation was signed this week once again restoring 26 weeks of benefits through the end of the year. Idaho’s duration is based on its unemployment rate and has decreased to a maximum of 20 weeks.

As part of the CARES Act, Congress added 13 weeks of additional benefits called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). But that program is set to expire at the end of the year, as is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which pays unemployment aid to millions of workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance (UI). Another program called Extended Benefits (EB) may add 50 percent more weeks than are available in regular state UI if the state’s unemployment rate is over 5 percent and more than 120 percent higher than it was for the same 13-week period over the past year; or states may adopt optional triggers that allow EB to kick in more readily. Moreover, states can adopt an additional trigger to add seven more weeks during periods of very high unemployment of more than 8 percent. You can find out if a state has triggered onto EB and the number of weeks here.

After that time, if workers have a qualifying COVID-related reason for being unemployed, they can then move into Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to get up to 39 total weeks of benefits, or 46 weeks in states with the extra high-unemployment-rate trigger allowing for seven more weeks. Generally, PUA will not apply to someone who originally was eligible for UI plus the available extensions, except in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular benefits. PUA is generally available for 39 or 46 weeks—that is, until the end of December, when the program is currently set to expire.

HOW DO WORKERS APPLY FOR EXTENDED UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE?

Does that all sound confusing? Hopefully, for a claimant, shifting between programs should be a smooth process. Federal guidelines do require that workers affirmatively apply for the extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits available under PEUC, and states are supposed to inform workers when they are eligible and tell them how to apply. It appears some agencies may not be doing that. But overall, the most current data showing regular UI exhaustion versus PEUC recipiency seem to indicate that the transition is by and large smooth for most workers. Anecdotally, workers in states like Michigan report the process to be seamless.

IS CONGRESS GOING TO EXTEND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS INTO 2021?

Without Congressional action to extend the CARES Act’s PEUC and PUA programs into 2021, millions of workers will drop to zero benefits by the end of this year. Workers who became unemployed the third week in March will run out of benefits before the last week of the year—about a week earlier than the CARES Act programs run out. Any worker who was unemployed prior to the start of the pandemic, however, will not only run out sooner but also may be unlikely to qualify for PUA without a COVID-related cause for their initial unemployment. Considering PUA eligibility extends to pandemic-related unemployment going back to the end of January, some workers are already exhausting PUA. Layoffs related to the pandemic stretch back much farther than the initial spike in new claims—the State of Washington reported a 30 percent increase in claims the first week in March, for example. Finally, workers in states with fewer than 26 weeks of regular eligibility may have difficulty establishing a COVID-related cause to qualify for PUA after their regular UI, PEUC, and EB run out. Given the first-fired, last-hired systemic racial discrimination in employment for Black workers, and the fact that this recession has hit Black workers harder than white workers, extensions in the duration of unemployment payments is a particularly important racial justice issue.

In the short term, Congress and the Trump administration must reach a deal to extend the number of weeks available during this recession. To ensure we do not repeat past mistakes of leaving workers behind in the recovery, we should peg the number of weeks of benefits available to the duration of unemployment that Black workers experience. And we must address the long-term structural changes that are needed to ensure we have a UI system that centers the experiences of Black workers so that it is built to meet the needs of all workers.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore is a Senior Policy Analyst for NELP. Her areas of expertise are Retirement Security, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Worker Training.


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