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“THIS IS NOT GOOD NEGOTIATING. THIS IS A COLLAPSE”–BERNIE SANDERS

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Late last night, Congress passed a $908 billion COVID relief bill that will extend unemployment benefits through the early spring, provide support for small businesses, schools, health care, nutrition, rental assistance, childcare, broadband, and the Postal Service, as well as funding to help distribute vaccines.

This legislation also includes, importantly, a $600 direct payment for every working class American earning less than $75,000 a year or $150,000 for a couple — plus $600 for each child. Let me be clear: this provision was not in the bill just two weeks ago. And, given the enormous economic desperation that so many working families are now experiencing, it is nowhere near enough as to what is needed. But, given the strong opposition of the Republican leadership in Congress and a number of Democrats, it’s no stretch to say that it would not have happened at all without our efforts, the hard work of progressive members in the U.S. House and grassroots progressives throughout the country. Republican Senator Josh Hawley also played an important role.

But let me state the obvious. The total funding in this bill was not even close to good enough, and my fear is that by reaching this agreement we are setting a bad precedent and setting the stage for a return to austerity politics now that Joe Biden is set to take office.

Remember, way back in May, the House passed a $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, which was a very serious effort to address the enormous health and economic crises facing our country. Two months later, the House passed another version of that bill for $2.2 trillion.

That same month, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a $1.1 trillion piece of legislation that included a $1,200 direct payment for every working class American.

Months later, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, negotiating on behalf of President Donald Trump, proposed a COVID relief plan with Speaker Pelosi for $1.8 trillion that also included a $1,200 direct payment.

And yet, after months of bi-partisan negotiations by the so-called Gang of 8, we ended up with a bill of just $908 billion that includes $560 billion in unused money from the previously passed CARES Act — a worse deal than was previously proposed by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

So we went from $3.4 trillion, to $2.2 trillion, to $1.8 trillion from Trump and $1.1 trillion from Mitch McConnell to just $348 billion in new money — roughly 10 percent of what Democrats thought was originally needed and half of what Trump and McConnell offered in direct payments.

This is not good negotiating. This is a collapse. [my emphasis] It is also no coincidence that as it became clear Joe Biden would become the next president of the United States, we started to hear a lot of talk from my Senate colleagues in the Republican Party about their old friend the deficit.

We couldn’t afford $1,200 for every working class American and $500 for their children because of the deficit.

We couldn’t afford to support state and local governments struggling during the middle of this health and economic crisis because of the deficit.

We couldn’t afford more meaningful and robust unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs during the middle of this pandemic because of the deficit.

Yet, this is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they passed a $1.9 trillion tax bill benefiting some of the richest people and largest corporations in this country.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they, just last week, pushed through the largest defense spending bill in the history of this country, a total of $740 billion. This is more money than the next 10 nations combined spend in their defense budgets.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that they spent trillions of dollars on war over the past two decades.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it gives hundreds of billions of dollars in giveaways to oil, gas and coal companies that exacerbate the climate crisis.

This is the same Republican Party so concerned about the deficit that it provides huge amounts of corporate welfare to companies like Walmart that pay their workers starvation wages and provide them meager benefits that must be supplemented by taxpayer-supported programs.

And during any of these debates, do you recall any of my Republican colleagues asking how these proposals were going to be paid for? I don’t. So forgive me for thinking their sudden display of concern for the deficit seems a bit insincere. More to the point: it’s total hypocrisy!

And our concern at this moment is that no matter what happens in Georgia next month, and which party controls the Senate, we cannot allow this type of inadequate negotiation again on major legislation. Yes. The deficit is important, but it is not the most important thing. At this unprecedented moment in American history, with a growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, and when many millions of Americans are suffering, Democrats in Congress must stand up for the working families of our country. No more caving in.

Today, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, one out of four workers are either unemployed or making less than $20,000 a year, more than 90 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured, tens of millions of people face eviction, and hunger in America is exploding. Tragically, there is more economic desperation in our country today than at any point since the Great Depression.

We have a responsibility to the struggling families of our country.

And let’s be honest: if we allow Republicans to set the parameters of the debate going forward, like they did in this current COVID relief bill, the next two to four years are going to be a disaster.

Want to expand health care? Where’s the money going to come from?

Want to rebuild our infrastructure? Where’s the money going to come from?

Want a Green New Deal, or even support for Joe Biden’s more modest climate proposal? Where’s the money going to come from?

So the fundamental political question of our time is: are we going to allow Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party and corporate America to return us to austerity politics, or are we going to build a dynamic economy that works for everyone?

My fear is that this COVID relief bill sets a very dangerous precedent for when Joe Biden takes office next month. And we cannot allow that to happen.

Going forward, Democrats must have an aggressive agenda that speaks to the needs of the working class in this country, income and wealth inequality, health care, climate change, education, racial justice, immigration reform and so many other vitally important issues. And in that struggle, we all have a role to play. So please, make your voice heard in the weeks and months ahead. Call your members of Congress, post your thoughts on social media, encourage progressives in your community to run for office, and volunteer and contribute to those who will fight for a government that will work for all of us, and not just the 1 percent and wealthy campaign contributors in this country.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on December 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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Jobless claims down 19,000, still 4 times pre-pandemic level

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The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell by 19,000 last week to still historically high 787,000 as a resurgent coronavirus grips the U.S. economy.

While at the lowest level in four weeks, the new figures released Thursday by the Labor Department are nearly four times higher than last year at this point before the coronavirus struck. Employers continue to cut jobs as rising coronavirus infections keep many people at home and state and local governments re-impose restrictions.

Jobless claims were running around 225,000 a week before the pandemic struck with force last March, causing weekly jobless claims to surge to a high of 6.9 million in late March as efforts to contain the virus sent the economy into a deep recession.

The government said that the total number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits fell by 103,000 to 5.2 million for the week ending Dec. 19, compared with the previous week.

The four-week average for claims which smooths out weekly variations rose last week to 836,750, an increase of 17,750 from the previous week.

Economists believe that the holidays, in addition to broad confusion over the status of a Covid-19 relief package, suppressed applications for benefits last week.

Congress finally passed a $900 billion relief bill that would boost benefit payments and extend two unemployment assistance programs tied to job losses from the pandemic. However, President Donald Trump called the measure a “disgrace” because in his view it did not provide enough in direct payments to individuals.

Trump eventually signed the measure on Sunday but sought to pressure Congress to boost the stimulus payments to individuals from the $600 in the bill to $2,000. The Democratic-controlled House quickly passed legislation to meet Trump’s demand, but the Republican-led Senate checked that momentum.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that the proposal to boost payments to $2,000 has “no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate.”

Meanwhile, the government has begun sending out the smaller payments to millions of Americans. The $600 payment is going to individuals with incomes up to $75,000.

Analysts believe the $900 billion package as it now stands will give the economy a boost, but only as long there are no major problems with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Earlier this month, Trump administration officials said they planned to have 20 million doses of the vaccine distributed by the end of the year. But according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, just over 11.4 million doses have been distributed and only 2.1 million people have received their first dose.

President Donald Trump deflected criticism about the pace of the vaccine program, saying that it’s “up to the States to distribute the vaccines.”

Most economists believe the U.S. economy will rebound at some point next year.

“While prospects for the economy later in 2021 are upbeat, the economy and labor market will have to navigate some difficult terrain between now and then and we expect (jobless) claims to remain elevated,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on December 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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‘We’re already too late’: Unemployment lifeline to lapse even with an aid deal

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U.S. lawmakers are struggling to hammer out another economic relief package before Congress adjourns next week. But for millions of Americans, the deadline may have already passed.

Even if Congress reaches a deal, some 12 million unemployed people could see their benefits lapse after Christmas. Worker advocates say it could take weeks for the jobless aid programs to get back online as lags in programming for outdated state systems cause delays in relief checks.

“We’re already too late,” said Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert at the National Employment Law Project. From the time Congress passes an extension of unemployment aid, she said, many states wouldn’t be up and running for “three weeks or four weeks” at the fastest.

That would not only fuel the desperation of unemployed households but could also cut into consumer spending as the coronavirus resurges across the nation, jeopardizing the economic recovery just as Joe Biden’s presidential administration gets under way.

Several federal unemployment programs are set to run out the day after Christmas, cutting millions of Americans off from their financial lifelines if Congress doesn’t pass another relief package.

What’s worse for the unemployed, the nonprofits and food banks that many have been turning to have themselves been bleeding workers under the crushing demand during the pandemic.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is circulating a proposal that would extend two major programs — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation — through the spring. Both are slated to expire Dec. 31, with final payments going out Dec. 26 — which is less than a week before a federal moratorium on evictions is also set to expire.

The provisions are the only source of aid for those who have exhausted state benefits, as well as for gig workers, the self-employed and others hit hardest by the pandemic.

Anything Congress includes in the next round of aid that is even modestly different from the programs implemented earlier this year “is going to take time to reprogram,” said Elizabeth Pancotti, a policy adviser at the pro-worker Employ America. “In some states that might be a week or two; in other states, we’ve seen it [take] five, six, seven weeks.”


“Anything that’s just the slightest bit different is a nightmare to reprogram,” she added.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security agreed that any delays depend on how the congressional programs are structured, adding that new programs — and often extensions of existing ones — “take time to stand up.”

Angela Delli-Santi, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state anticipates “no lapse” in providing benefits to people, although she also said it hinges on what the final language is on restarting the programs.

The bipartisan congressional proposal would provide the jobless with an extra $300 a week in their benefit checks — which would require state agencies to restart a program that expired at the end of July. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program originally offered the unemployed an extra $600 a week, but Congress failed to extend it when it lapsed July 31.

Should Congress pass an extension of the programs, states would then have to wait for the U.S. Labor Department to issue guidance before sending out payments — which could be hard to turn around quickly during the holidays.

At the same time, the need for more aid is growing. About 1.3 million applications for unemployment benefits came in last week in both regular state programs and the federal PUA program, the Labor Department reported Thursday — the highest number of new claims since September.

New applications in state unemployment programs alone saw a more than a 30 percent jump in the week following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Without the cash, many unemployed will have no choice but to turn to food banks and other nonprofits. Miles-long lines of people have been overwhelming food banks, with demand rising by about 60 percent from last year, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.


Yet since the outset of the pandemic, nonprofits have shed nearly 1 million of their own workers: Not only has that created a greater need for services, but it has also driven up costs due to the need to purchase protective gear and execute other measures to keep volunteers safe.

“We’re already seeing nonprofits closing their doors — and we’re the backup for people,” said Rick Cohen, chief communications officer for the National Council of Nonprofits. “We are where they go when the government programs run out or when they’re not enough. And if we’re not there. Where do people turn?”

Nonprofits “weren’t designed to hold up this many people for this long,” NELP’s Evermore said. “These are all finite resources.”

“Unemployment insurance is the program that we created to deal with this particular problem,” she went on. “And without it, we can’t.”

Jessica Oyanagi, 40, was running a photography business out of Maui when the pandemic hit and she lost most of her customers. Because her photographers were independent contractors rather than employees, she was only eligible for unemployment insurance under PUA.

The program affords her about $1,000 a month, which is still not enough to make ends meet: She and her husband were forced to move in with her parents, and they rely in part on food stamps to keep themselves and their daughter fed.

It has been “the most stressful year of my entire life, I’m not going to lie,” Oyanagi said. “Every area of our life has been just completely turned upside down.”

Oyanagi isn’t alone: In mid-November, more than 27 million individuals told the Census Bureau they were relying on unemployment benefits to meet their spending needs. More than 75 million said they expected to lose their employment income in the next four weeks. And nearly 17 million people reported using SNAP benefits — better known as food stamps — to get by.

“They’re already behind on rent, they’re already behind on bills, they’re already struggling to pay utilities, and now they’re about to lose the little bit of income they still have,” said Julia Simon-Mishel, who leads the unemployment compensation practice at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which provides services to low-income families.

The end of the eviction moratorium that the Trump administration imposed in September also poses a threat.

About 11.4 million renter households will owe an average of just over $6,000 in back rent, utilities and late fees totaling some $70 billion come January, according to Moody’s Analytics.

“Eviction notices are piling up on sheriffs’ desks across the country to be executed if the moratorium is not extended or renters don’t receive help with the back rent they owe,” the firm said in a statement. “Mass evictions in the dead of winter and during a raging pandemic will be unbearable for those losing their homes as well as being a blow to the already-fragile collective psyche.”

Anneliese Monkman, 28, who lost her job at a hotel in the spring and has struggled to find demand for her fledgling wedding planning business, receives about $355 a week in unemployment — all of which will disappear if Congress does not extend the emergency unemployment programs.

“We’re kind of choosing what bills we’re going to pay,” she said.

Workers are likely to dig themselves deeper into debt to weather the lapse in income — a spiral that economists warn could worsen the recession. Last resorts like payday loans or credit cards could serve to dig low-income workers into an even deeper hole, exacerbating wealth inequity.

“They only have high interest options available to them,” Evermore said. “Whenever they do get their pittance for [unemployment insurance] turned back on again … it’s going to go to paying back the debt that they’ve accrued.”

Eleanore Fernandez, 48, was working as an executive assistant at a Silicon Valley startup when the pandemic hit and she lost her job. She makes about $900 a month under one of the federal programs set to expire at the end of the month.

She said if her benefits lapse, she will need to consider taking out a loan on top of the money she already owes her landlord, who has been allowing her to pay 25 percent of her rent.

“I’ve gone through my savings almost now,” she said. “So if [the aid] runs out, then I don’t know.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.

About the Author: Kellie Mejdrich is a reporter for POLITICO Pro Financial Services.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.


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Three things unemployed people should know right now, this week in the war on workers

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Unemployment claims just hit their highest level in months, Republicans are still refusing to negotiate a stimulus package that does half what the country needs, and people who have been unemployed for months are increasingly desperate. Only the government can truly help unemployed people, but the National Employment Law Project’s Michele Evermore has three pieces of advice for unemployed workers in the coming weeks. It’s not cheerful news, but it’s worth knowing.

First, “If you have received a [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] overpayment notice, you are not alone.” But you do have the right to appeal. Second, know that both PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation are slated to end on December 26 (Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, everyone!), and if Congress extends them at the last minute, there will likely still be a lapse.

”The takeaway is that, if Congress extends CARES Act benefits, you may have to wait through part of January to get access to benefits that stopped at the end of December,” Evermore writes. “And again, if Congress passes relief, it has historically been structured so that your benefits are restored beginning the date of enactment. So there shouldn’t be a gap in your eligibility if that happens, just a gap in when you get paid.”

Finally, no matter what happens: organize, organize, organize. Make sure this kind of congressional contempt for millions of struggling people doesn’t happen again.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The labor market mess awaiting Joe Biden

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President-elect Joe Biden will inherit one of the weakest labor markets in U.S. history, with record-high unemployment, widening inequality and deteriorating economic conditions.

Yet many of the solutions he’s offering — massive infrastructure, clean energy and technology investments — will need the approval of a largely hostile Congress. That could undercut one of the central goals of his presidency: to come to the rescue of the nation’s ailing workforce, rocked by widespread layoffs during the pandemic shutdowns.

A potential crisis will greet him before he even enters the Oval Office: An estimated 12 million people will lose their jobless benefits at the end of the year without another aid package from Congress. There are also early signs that the labor market is backsliding, as the number of people seeking unemployment aid has started to rise again after weeks of declines. 

Last week, workers filed another 778,000 new applications for jobless benefits, an increase of 30,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department reported Wednesday. More than 20 million people are currently receiving unemployment benefits. 

“Biden’s going to be very constrained in what kinds of economic policies he’s going to be able to legislate,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s going to have the ability to implement the proposals he’s put forward to get us back to full employment more quickly.”

After meeting with business and labor leaders on Nov. 16, Biden said an infusion of relief money and a national strategy to address the coronavirus would get the economy revving again after a “dark winter.” He vowed to create millions of new union jobs through vast spending programs.

“These are the kinds of investments that are going to strengthen our economy and our competitiveness, create millions of jobs, union jobs and doing so, or respect the dignity of work, and empower the voice of workers,” Biden said.

An analysis conducted by Moody’s earlier this year found that if Democrats were able to fully adopt their economic agenda, 18.6 million jobs could be created during Biden’s first term as president, and the economy could return to full employment by the second half of 2022.

Biden has also called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current $7.25, a change that economists say could shrink gaps in equality in the labor market and boost workers in low-wage jobs — the sector of the economy hit the hardest by the pandemic.

But whipping the votes needed to pass those proposals would be tough going in a divided Congress. Even if Democrats win both of the runoff elections in January for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia — a steep climb — the chamber would be tied 50-50, requiring Vice President Kamala Harris to break the deadlock. And some red state Democrats may not be willing to go along with Biden’s most ambitious spending plans.

House Democrats’ efforts to pass a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 stirred headwinds within the caucus last year. And that bill was never taken up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after it eventually passed the House.

Biden’s promises to require all contractors to adhere to collective bargaining agreements on federal projects as part of an infrastructure package would also be a nonstarter for conservatives and would be strongly opposed by the business lobby.

“Biden is going to go into office with an economy that is worse than he and his advisers thought he would have when they wrote up those grandiose policy proposals,” said Claudia Sahm, who was a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “And with a divided Congress they will be very limited in what they’re able to do,” she said. “That agenda is dead on arrival. A 50/50 Senate would not be enough to put through major massive spending.”

And more dark clouds are gathering over the economy.

Cities and states across the country are weighing new business restrictions, threatening to send the labor market into a deeper spiral even before Biden takes office. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week ordered widespread closures of indoor dining and gyms following a rapid surge in cases in the state. New York City shuttered the nation’s largest public school system after coronavirus infections climbed to a level not seen since the spring.

Getting the economy through the winter without a widely available vaccine and then “healing scars from the recession” are going to be “monumental challenges by any administration,” said former U.S. Treasury economist Ernie Tedeschi.

“What worries me the most is that we’re losing momentum at a time when the U.S. economy is about to enter a very sort of dangerous phase, economically, and in terms of public health,” Tedeschi added.

Even when the economy makes it out of the winter months and flu season, millions of workers who have been unemployed for long periods of time will face new challenges getting hired for a pool of jobs that is expected to stay shallow for some time.

“The labor market is a mess,” Zandi said. “One-fifth of the workforce is either unemployed, underemployed or is getting paid less than they did before the pandemic,” he added. “That’s a very troubled job market.”

Nearly a third of the estimated 20 million jobless Americans were defined as “long-term” unemployed in October, meaning they were out of a job for more than six months, which can create major consequences for job-seekers, economists say.

“As joblessness spells drag on, workers’ skills erode, they become discouraged, and they’re more likely to face discrimination by potential employers,” Andrew Stettner and Elizabeth Pancotti wrote in new research released by the progressive Century Foundation. “Not only are the long-term unemployed more likely to face subsequent periods of unemployment, they face the risk ofdropping out of the labor force indefinitely.”

Congress pumped trillions of dollars into the economy earlier this year in several March relief packages, providing businesses with forgivable loans and expanding unemployment benefits to help Americans weather shutdown orders throughout the country.

Despite the infusion, the economy has only gained back about half of the 22 million jobs lost to the pandemic in March and April. The unemployment rate has been slowly declining since hitting 14.7 percent in April, but it was still sat at 6.9 percent in October, “which is close to the average peak unemployment rate in recessions since World War II,” Zandi said.

Those who have been hurt the most by the pandemic-induced job losses are minorities and the poorest workers, according to economists, leaving deep scars in the labor market that a Biden administration will have to address.

“People who can least afford the job losses are the ones who’ve experienced them,” said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Half of the job losses have been in industries that disproportionately employ … in the low wage sector. And those are disproportionately Black workers, Hispanic workers [and] women, who get paid low wages.”

“This is going to be a much trickier thing to solve,” AFL-CIO chief economist Bill Spriggs said. “My fear is … that the scarring will have left us with the Black unemployment rate that is still hovering near double digits. Young people will still be in a horrible job market.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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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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