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Companies are getting creative to pay workers as little as they can get away with in the pandemic

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Unemployment remains high, Republicans allowed expanded unemployment benefits to expire, and retail companies are using that desperation to get vulnerable people to risk their health or their lives for low, low wages. Early on in the pandemic, many retail chains paid their workers some amount of hazard pay. It was usually an inadequate amount and often wasn’t backed up by a commitment to safety, but it was something.

Well, no more. Most of the companies that offered hazard pay back in the spring have phased it out, often replacing it with bonuses, so workers aren’t tempted to think of it as part of their hourly pay and fight to keep it. And, The New York Times reports, many of those same companies have spent far more buying back stock to benefit their shareholders even as they strategize carefully to avoid paying their workers a penny more than they have to. All while coronavirus rates are again surging.

Kroger initially gave workers $2 an hour in hazard pay, then took it away even though the pandemic didn’t go away. Workers have protested, but so far the company’s big generous offer is fuel discounts and a $100 store credit for “holiday appreciation.” 

According to its recent quarterly report, Lowe’s workers have gotten $800 million in pandemic extras—which sounds like a fair bit of money until you read that the company spent $1 billion on buybacks and dividends in the third quarter and plans to spend another $3 billion in the fourth quarter.

Dollar General says it will add $100 million in extra money for workers to the $73 million it’s already paid out. It’s planning $2 billion in stock buybacks on top of $602 million it’s already spent. Dollar General also initially refused to participate in a Vermont program that paid workers extra money funneled through their employers.

This was literally free money for the underpaid workers of Dollar General, but the company refused, claiming it wanted to leave the money for smaller businesses. Except the money was for workers, and Dollar General workers need the money just as much as workers at your local corner store. Yes, Dollar General should have paid that money itself to its own workers, but saying “we won’t pay you that $2,000 and we won’t let anyone else do it either” is grotesque.

Walmart, too, initially refused to apply for the money for its workers, citing the same “give it to small businesses” reason. Walmart, too, could damn well afford to pay its workers that money. Instead, full-time Walmart workers “have received a series of three cash payments of up to $300 each,” the Times reports.

“Imagine being told by your manager that corporate won’t fill out the paperwork that could get you $2,000,” said Tim Ashe, president of the Vermont Senate. Both Walmart and Dollar General say they will now apply for the program.

The U.S. has learned a little bit about how much we rely on low-paid workers in grocery stores and other retail outlets, finding them to be essential workers just like healthcare workers. Yet these workers are still brutally underpaid and underprotected in the pandemic. Then again, so are many healthcare workers. And employers have made it clear: They will not give workers fair wages of their own accord. The only way for workers to get what they deserve is to build power and make demands.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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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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Unemployment is sky-high for young workers in the COVID-19 economy

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The Great Recession dragged down Millennials, putting them years behind economically. Now, the COVID-19 recession is damaging another generation of young workers. Workers aged 16 to 24 typically have higher unemployment and underemployment than older workers (and remember here that you only count as unemployed if you’re trying to find work—it’s not like this statistic counts kids who don’t want to work), but “The overall unemployment rate for young workers ages 16–24 jumped from 8.4% to 24.4% from spring 2019 to spring 2020, while unemployment for their counterparts ages 25 and older rose from 2.8% to 11.3%,” the Economic Policy Institute reports. “Spring 2020 unemployment rates were even higher for young Black, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers (29.6%, 27.5%, and 29.7%, respectively).”

That’s not just a problem now. It puts young people behind the curve on getting job experience, it means debts can build up faster, and “Research on prior recessions finds substantial evidence that workers who enter the labor market during an economic downturn are scarred for many years. These unlucky workers are more likely to experience lower earnings, greater earnings instability, and more spells of unemployment in the long term compared with similar individuals who entered the labor market in better times.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Jobless claims jump, hitting highest level since mid-August

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American workers continued to hit the unemployment line in large numbers last week, with 898,000 new claims filed for jobless benefits.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones had been looking for 830,000.

The total for the week ended Oct. 10 was the highest number since Aug. 22 and another sign that the labor market continues to struggle to get back to its pre-coronavirus pandemic mark as cases rise and worries increase over a renewed wave in the fall and winter. The number represented a gain of 53,000 from the previous week’s upwardly revised total of 845,000.close dialogThe top moments in business and politics – wrapped with exclusive color and context – right in your ears

Despite the higher-than-expected total, the level of continuing claims continues to fall at a brisk pace, declining by 1.165 million to just over 10 million. Continuing claims data runs a week behind the headline claims number.

The economy has recaptured some 11.4 million positions, or about half those who were sidelined. The unemployment rate has come down to 7.9% but is still more than double its pre-pandemic level.

The four-week moving average of continuing claims fell by 682,250 to 11.48 million.

The insured unemployment rate, a simple measure that compares those receiving benefits against the total labor force, slid 0.9 percentage point to 6.8%.

Those receiving first-time benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program continued to decline, sliding by more than 91,000 to 372,981. That program provides compensation to those who normally wouldn’t be eligible for benefits, such as freelancers and independent contractors.

However, recipients under the program accounted for more than half of those getting unemployment benefits as of Sept. 26. Those receiving benefits under the emergency claims portion of the pandemic program increased by more than 800,000, though that data also is two weeks old.

“Although the absolute level of claims remains well above the pre-pandemic level, the declining trend of continuing claims is more important to watch,” Citigroup economist Andrew Hollenhorst said in a note. “The decline in claims over the past few weeks, even after netting out those who transferred to federal PEUC, is encouraging, pointing to still-robust rehiring in late September, and should continue into Q4.”

Total benefit recipients also declined, to 25.3 million from 25.5 million, also as of the week ended Sept. 26.

Reporting of claims continues to be impacted by California, which has halted processing of its claims as it cleans up backlogs and looks to implement technology aimed at preventing fraud. The Labor Department has been using the 225,000 figure reported the week before the effort began.

This blog originally appeared at CNBC on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Cox is the finance editor for CNBC.com where he manages coverage of the financial markets and Wall Street. His stories are routinely among the most-read items on the site each day as he interviews some of the smartest and most well-respected analysts and advisors in the financial world. He also is a frequent guest on CNBC.


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Unemployment Systems Floundering Without Worker-Centered Design

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New York, NY—The Century Foundation, the National Employment Law Project, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance today released the findings of an intensive study of state efforts to modernize their unemployment insurance benefit systems. This is the first report to detail how technology modernization has altered the experience of jobless workers.

The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, draws lessons from state modernization experiences and recommends user-friendly design and implementation methods for future projects.

Read the new report, “Centering Workers: How to Modernize Unemployment Insurance Technology”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the struggling technology holding up our unemployment systems and the harm to workers when they cannot navigate or access their unemployment benefits.  Many state systems were programmed with COBOL, a long-outdated computer language.  While some states have undertaken modernization projects, many encountered significant problems and workers paid the price through inaccessible systems, delayed payments, and even false fraud accusations. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims, has further exposed the weaknesses in these systems and the difficulties workers face with their unemployment claims.

State officials have at times been candid about the deep flaws in their systems. Pennsylvania’s labor secretary described their 50-year old computer system as “held together with chewing gum and duct tape.”  Florida’s own state auditor found numerous flaws in the state’s new computerized system that went unfixed through multiple administrations. States and the private companies that develop these systems failed to consistently seek worker input and build systems focused on user experience.

The report also explores how modernization and controversial new technology like predictive analytics can affect access to benefits.

“Much remains unknown about how state unemployment agencies are using technology like automated decision-making, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence,” added Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and principal investigator for the report. “While these tools can sometimes be helpful, we remain concerned about fairness, accuracy, and due process.”

“The pandemic has underscored that unemployment insurance is a lifeline for workers, yet state systems are rarely built with workers’ needs in mind,” said?Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with NELP and a co-author of the report. “Our report finds that Black and Latinx workers are particularly poorly served by unemployment insurance systems. We have to do better.”

To date, fewer than half of states have modernized their unemployment benefits systems. Several have plans to modernize or are already in the midst of modernizing. The report provides guidance for them, as well as for modernized states looking to improve their systems.

The report also recommends six steps states can take right now, to expand access to benefits during the pandemic:

  1. provide 24/7 access to online and mobile services for unemployed workers;
  2. mobile-optimize unemployment websites and applications;
  3. update password reset protocols;
  4. use call-back and chat technology;
  5. adopt a triage business model for call centers; and
  6. comply with civil rights laws requiring that websites and applications be translated into Spanish and other commonly spoken languages.

“Modernization needs to be approached carefully to avoid creating new problems for workers,” noted?Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a co-author of the report. “Our analysis shows that states were able to pay benefits more quickly after modernizing their systems, but workers were more likely to be denied assistance and too many of these denials were inaccurate. These problems have been magnified during the pandemic when no one should have to choose between paying rent, putting food on the table, and good health.”

The findings and recommendations in the report are grounded in publicly available data on unemployment insurance system performance, interviews with officials from more than a dozen states, and in-depth case studies of modernization in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington, conducted from October 2018 to January 2020.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed?workers. For more about NELP, visit?www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.


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Unite Here Is 85% Unemployed and Still Fighting Like Hell

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No union in Amer­i­ca has been posi­tioned more direct­ly in the bulls­eye of this pandemic’s eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion than Unite Here, the 300,000-member union of hotel, food ser­vice and casi­no work­ers. In April, its mem­bers were suf­fer­ing a stag­ger­ing 98% unem­ploy­ment rate. Almost six months lat­er, the union is stuck at about 85% unem­ploy­ment. Despite that, it is also the only group deter­mined enough to wage a large-scale door knock­ing cam­paign for the Joe Biden tick­et, at a time when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has com­plete­ly aban­doned its ground game. 

Even as Repub­li­cans push to reopen busi­ness­es and Wall Street con­tin­ues to boom, the sta­tus of Unite Here?—?known as an aggres­sive and polit­i­cal­ly active union that wields seri­ous pow­er with­in entire indus­tries?—?paints a pic­ture of a work­ing class still mired in an exis­ten­tial cri­sis of long term unem­ploy­ment. D. Tay­lor, Unite Here’s gruff inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent, says that the col­lapse of the trav­el and tourism indus­try that dec­i­mat­ed the union’s jobs con­tin­ues to grind on. ?“There’s no busi­ness trav­el, there’s no con­ven­tions, there’s no for­eign trav­el. The hotel indus­try has real­ly nev­er reopened from the pan­dem­ic,” he says. Like­wise, the shut­down of major sport­ing events and of many col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es has put many of the union’s indus­tri­al food ser­vice work­ers out of work. And the sched­uled Octo­ber 1 expi­ra­tion of the Con­gres­sion­al air­line res­cue pack­age in the CARES Act will almost cer­tain­ly mean lay­offs for many of the union’s air­port work­ers as well. Even in Las Vegas, a rel­a­tive bright spot that has seen some resump­tion in busi­ness, more than half of Unite Here’s mem­bers are still unem­ployed, accord­ing to Taylor. 

The loss of dues mon­ey from all of those unem­ployed mem­bers has been a large blow to Unite Here’s own inter­nal finances. But the union has not stopped work­ing. Besides help­ing mem­bers win exten­sions of health ben­e­fits and nav­i­gate bro­ken state unem­ploy­ment sys­tems (which Tay­lor calls ?“a joke”), most of the union’s bat­tles are now polit­i­cal. One of their top issues in cities across the nation now is try­ing to ensure that laid off mem­bers retain long term ?“recall rights” to get their old jobs back when busi­ness resumes, so that employ­ers can’t use the pan­dem­ic shut­down as an excuse to get rid of expe­ri­enced union work­ers in favor of new, low­er-priced replacements. 

On a nation­al lev­el, Tay­lor says Con­gress des­per­ate­ly needs to pass anoth­er stim­u­lus bill like the HEROES act to pre­vent more peo­ple from los­ing health care cov­er­age dur­ing this cri­sis, and that there must be a coor­di­nat­ed nation­al strat­e­gy to keep Covid in check. He is not opti­mistic about either. ?“I kind of think we’re back to the ?‘Oliv­er Twist’ days when you deal with this admin­is­tra­tion and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans,” he says. 
Joe Biden marches with Unite Here members in Las Vegas in February of 2020.

Unite Here, like most unions out­side of law enforce­ment, is back­ing the Biden-Har­ris tick­et. They held a vir­tu­al event with Kamala Har­ris this week. (A UH spokesper­son says the union is spend­ing ?“sev­er­al mil­lions” on the elec­tion, and is pulling in addi­tion­al fund­ing from out­side sources as well). At that event, Tay­lor urged Har­ris not to give up on old-fash­ioned door knock­ing?—?some­thing that Unite Here itself is pur­su­ing in the key swing states of Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Florida. 

In fact, the union’s com­mit­ment to knock­ing on doors despite the pan­dem­ic makes it unique in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Politi­co report­ed last month that the Trump cam­paign is knock­ing on a mil­lion doors a week, and the Biden cam­paign is knock­ing on zero. Tay­lor says that the union has a strict set of safe­ty pro­to­cols, includ­ing social dis­tanc­ing and masks for their vol­un­teers, who car­ry extra masks to hand out to any­one who answers the door with­out one. Thus far, they have not had any cas­es of Covid as a result of the pro­gram. The union plans to knock on a half mil­lion doors in Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Flori­da by elec­tion day. 

“I don’t think there’s any replace­ment for it. I’ve been try­ing to urge every pro­gres­sive group” to start door knock­ing as well, Tay­lor says. ?“I think if they don’t, it’s at their own per­il. Door knock­ing has been a tra­di­tion for decades, and it works. You can’t talk to some­body in a TV screen. There’s a safe way to do it.” 

Despite Taylor’s urg­ing, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself seems to have made the deci­sion to for­sake door knock­ing entire­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. (Biden’s cam­paign man­ag­er said ear­li­er this month that ?“those met­rics don’t have any impact on reach­ing vot­ers.) The Biden cam­paign, there­fore, finds itself in the odd posi­tion of rely­ing on a union made up almost entire­ly of peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly unem­ployed to knock on doors in swing states for them, shrug­ging off the union’s strate­gic advice, even as the cam­paign wel­comes its mate­r­i­al support. 

For D. Tay­lor, defeat­ing the ?“patho­log­i­cal liar” Don­ald Trump is a neces­si­ty?—?but get­ting Biden elect­ed is only the begin­ning of orga­nized labor’s work. He is adamant that unions must con­tin­ue to orga­nize, despite the fact that many are just try­ing to sur­vive, in order to avoid the long term fate of ?“try­ing to pro­tect a small­er and small­er piece of the work force.” He is equal­ly adamant that unions need to lean hard on Biden in order to make him do what must be done for work­ing peo­ple. ?“If we don’t put pres­sure on folks on an ongo­ing basis, they rarely do the hard things that need to be done,” Tay­lor says. 

“I think this [elec­tion] is gonna be a barn burn­er. If any­one assumes vic­to­ry, that’s a guar­an­teed defeat.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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‘A tale of 2 recessions’: As rich Americans get richer, the bottom half struggles

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The path toward economic recovery in the U.S. has become sharply divided, with wealthier Americans earning and saving at record levels while the poorest struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table.

The result is a splintered economic picture characterized by high highs — the stock market has hit record levels — and incongruous low lows: Nearly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, and the jobless rate stands at 8.4 percent. And that dichotomy, economists fear, could obscure the need for an additional economic stimulus that most say is sorely needed.

The trend is on track to exacerbate dramatic wealth and income gaps in the U.S., where divides are already wider than any other nation in the G-7, a group of major developed countries. Spiraling inequality can also contribute to political and financial instability, fuel social unrest and extend any economic recession.

The growing divide could also have damaging implications for President Donald Trump’s reelection bid. Economic downturns historically have been harmful if not fatal for incumbent presidents, and Trump’s base of working-class, blue-collar voters in the Midwest are among the demographics hurting the most. The White House has worked to highlight a rapid economic recovery as a primary reason to reelect the president, but his support on the issue is slipping: Nearly 3 in 5 people say the economy is on the wrong track, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found.

Democrats are now seizing on what they see as an opportunity to hit the president on what had been one of his strongest reelection arguments.

“The economic inequities that began before the downturn have only worsened under this failed presidency,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Friday. “No one thought they’d lose their job for good or see small businesses shut down en masse. But that kind of recovery requires leadership — leadership we didn’t have, and still don’t have.”

Recent economic data and surveys have laid bare the growing divide. Americans saved a stunning $3.2 trillion in July, the same month that more than 1 in 7 households with children told the U.S. Census Bureau they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food. More than a quarter of adults surveyed have reported paying down debt faster than usual, according to a new AP-NORC poll, while the same proportion said they have been unable to make rent or mortgage payments or pay a bill.

A historic House vote on marijuana legalization will take place later this month. We break down why Democrats are voting on the bill despite the fact that it’ll be dead upon arrival in the Senate.

And while the employment rate for high-wage workers has almost entirely recovered — by mid-July it was down just 1 percent from January — it remains down 15.4 percent for low-wage workers, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights economic tracker.

“What that’s created is this tale of two recessions,” said Beth Akers, a labor economist with the Manhattan Institute who worked on the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. “There are so obviously complete communities that have been almost entirely unscathed by Covid, while others are entirely devastated.”

Trump and his allies have seized on the strength of the stock market and positive growth in areas like manufacturing and retail sales as evidence of what they have been calling a “V-shaped recovery”: a sharp drop-off followed by rapid growth.

But economists say that argument fails to see the larger picture, one where roughly a million laid-off workers are filing for unemployment benefits each week, millions more have seen their pay and hours cut, and permanent job losses are rising. The economy gained 1.4 million jobs in August, the Labor Department reported Friday, but the pace of job growth has slowed at a time when less than half of the jobs lost earlier this year have been recovered.

Some economists have begun to refer to the recovery as “K-shaped,” because while some households and communities have mostly recovered, others are continuing to struggle — or even seeing their situation deteriorate further.

“If you just look at the top of the K, it’s a V — but you can’t just look at what’s above water,” said Claudia Sahm, director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “There could be a whole iceberg underneath it that you’re going to plow into.”

The burden is falling heavily on the poorest Americans, who are more likely to be out of work and less likely to have savings to lean on to weather the crisis. While recessions are always hardest on the poor, the coronavirus downturn has amplified those effects because shutdowns and widespread closures have wiped out low-wage jobs in industries like leisure and hospitality.

Highly touted gains in the stock market, meanwhile, help only the wealthiest 10 percent or so of households, as most others own little or no stock.

The disconnect between the stock market and the broader economy has been stark. On the same day in late August that MGM Resorts announced it would be laying off a quarter of its workforce, throwing some 18,000 workers into unemployment, its stock price jumped more than 6 percent, reaching its highest closing price since the start of March.

“The haves and the have-nots, there’s always been a distinction,” Sahm said. But now, she added, “we are widening this in a way I don’t think people have really wrapped their head around.”

A store going out of business
A customer leaves a retail store, which is going out of business, during the coronavirus pandemic. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

Without further stimulus, the situation appears poised to get worse. Economic growth until now had been led by increasing levels of consumer spending, buoyed by stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits that gave many people, including jobless workers, more money to spend.

Low-income consumers have led the way, and they spent slightly more in August than they did in January, according to the Opportunity Insights tracker — even as middle- and high-income consumers are still spending less.

But those low-income consumers were also the most dependent on the extra $600 per week in boosted unemployment benefits, which expired in July. Since that lapsed — and since Congress appears unlikely to extend it any time soon, if at all — “we’re likely to see other macroeconomic numbers really fall off a cliff in the coming weeks,” Akers said.

The expected drop in spending, paired with the expiration of economic relief initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, could also spell trouble for businesses in the coming months. Many economists expect a wave of bankruptcies and business closures in the fall, contributing to further layoffs.

In that sector, too, owners are feeling disparate impacts. More than 1 in 5 small business owners reported that sales are still 50 percent or less than where they were before the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, and the same proportion say they will need to close their doors if current economic conditions do not improve within six months.

At the same time, however, half said they are nearly back to where they were before, and approximately 1 in 7 owners say they are doing better now than they were before the pandemic, the survey showed.

Those diverging narratives could be understating the need for further stimulus by smoothing over some of the deeper weaknesses in the labor market and the economy, experts say.

“This is a case where the averages tell a different story than the underlying data itself,” said Peter Atwater, an adjunct economics professor at William & Mary.

While Republicans appear to be embracing the idea of further “targeted” aid, they are also touting what Trump has called a “rocket-ship” economic recovery and emphasizing record-breaking growth while downplaying the record-breaking losses that preceded it.

“There’s no question the recovery has beat expectations,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, this week on a press call with reporters.

Talks between the White House and Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have been stalled for weeks. The Senate is set to return from its summer recess next week with no clear path forward on a relief package.

“People are in these bubbles,” Atwater said. “And if people aren’t leaving their homes, are not really getting out, it’s unlikely that they’re seeing the magnitude of the downside of this K-shaped recovery.”

This article originally appeared at Politico on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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What are the best and worst states to work in during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The coronavirus pandemic has dealt blow after blow to U.S. workers. The two biggest: Unemployment is sky-high, and many of the jobs that are left are suddenly unsafe. 

But as with so many things, from minimum wage to paid sick leave to enforcement of existing laws, how bad workers have it varies dramatically from state to state. Now, you can find out how your state ranks on labor protections in the era of COVID-19, thanks to a new report from Oxfam America. Oxfam ranked states by worker protections, healthcare, and unemployment, coming up with an overall ranking that puts Washington State, New Jersey, and California at the top, and Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia at the bottom.

At $275, Alabama’s maximum unemployment benefit is only a little higher than the minimum of $240 in Massachusetts—and in Puerto Rico, the maximum is just $190. But that’s not the only way Alabama is committed to hurting working families: “Alabama has no moratorium on evictions or utilities being shut off; no mandated paid sick or family leave; and no requirements for personal protective equipment for workers. In addition, the governor issued an executive order to protect businesses and health care providers from lawsuits resulting from COVID-19.”

Oxfam America is calling on states to:

  • Improve worker protections to ensure paid sick time, paid family and medical leave programs, and childcare for all workers
  • Expand Medicaid
  • Increase unemployment payments

Regardless of what state you live in, employers are going to vary in how much they’re doing to protect workers’ safety. The AFL-CIO has a new checklist to determine how safe you are at work, with information about workplace safety—including how to organize for it.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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U.S. unemployment rate fell to 8.4 percent in August

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The unemployment rate dropped to 8.4 percent in August, the Labor Department reported on Friday, marking the fourth month of declines even as the pace of job growth is slowing.

The August rate is down from its April peak of 14.7 percent, but still remains far above the 3.5 percent recorded in February, before coronavirus shutdowns took hold.

The economy recovered 1.4 million jobs last month, the report showed. That’s a slowdown from the previous month’s gain of a revised 1.7 million and from the 4.8 million recovered in June.

After four straight months of growth, fewer than half of the more than 23 million jobs lost in March and April have been recovered.

“Slowing job growth is a disaster when you are 11.8 million jobs in the hole,” Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist at the Labor Department, posted on Twitter Friday. “This is not the V-shaped recovery that could get us out of this crisis in a reasonable timeframe.”

The data released Friday morning are the results of a survey conducted in mid-August, reflecting some of the earliest effects since enhanced federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. The growth was led by rehires in retail, education, leisure and professional services. It also includes nearly 240,000 workers the government temporarily hired to work on the 2020 Census.

Economists warn the labor market may well have grown weaker since the report was conducted, however. Many expect further layoffs through the fall especially if Congress fails to pass further stimulus relief, as an expected drop in consumer spending, the expiration of a small business relief program and other factors could spur a wave of business closures across the country.

The number of permanent job losses is also rising, a signal that damage to the labor market is likely to be long-lasting. The vast majority of unemployed workers are classified as on temporary layoff, indicating they still expect to return to their previous jobs. But permanent losses climbed to 3.4 million in August, the report showed, up from July’s 2.9 million.

White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow hailed the latest numbers on Friday, with the caveat that “we are not out of the woods.” He also downplayed the need for further stimulus, saying in an interview on Bloomberg TV that he believed the economy was “self-sustaining” and could survive without an immediate deal in Congress.

“We can absolutely live with it,” he said, adding, “It depends on the package. A bad package would not be helpful, a smart, good package, well-targeted would be helpful.”

The unemployment rate is dropping fastest for white workers, the report shows, while employment among minority workers is recovering at a slower rate.

The white unemployment rate for white people fell to 7.3 percent in August, the report showed, a drop of 6.9 percent from its April peak. The unemployment rate for Black people, meanwhile, stands at 13.0 percent, a drop of 3.7 percent from its April level.

This article originally appeared at Politico on September 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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