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Unemployment Benefits Protect Seasonal Workers

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Sheila Regan (@Sheila_Regan) | Twitter

The Wisconsin state legislature wants to slash unemployment benefits. Seasonal workers rely on that money as job opportunities fluctuate throughout the year.

This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

Troy Brewer was pleased when the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs this year, and not just because he’s a big fan of the basketball team. 

Brewer works as a cook in Fiserv Forum, the arena where the Bucks play. He’s been there since the arena opened in 2018, and helped start a union there in the same year, the Fiserv Forum and Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). The union’s contract ensures that Brewer and his coworkers make at least a $15 wage, and because of Brewer’s seniority, he’s at the top of the list whenever there’s work. 

But after the playoffs, the work schedule gets a little light. 

“I’m most definitely worried,” Brewer said. ?“Recently, we have emails saying we don’t have a schedule set for July, like there might not be any work.”

The backup for Brewer and workers like him, who work in fields that haven’t fully returned from the pandemic, is unemployment insurance.

Back in March of 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which in addition to other relief measures, supplemented the state’s unemployment benefits by $600 a week, a number which was halved in January. In March 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which continued the $300 supplement, set to expire on September 6. Since then, 25 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have announced their intention to stop accepting the federal subsidy. 

In Wisconsin, the legislature has voted to reinstate work search requirements for people receiving unemployment insurance, and declined Governor Evers’ proposal to add $15 million to the state’s unemployment system, as well as a proposal to add $28 million to worker training programs. Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have made moves to eliminate the $300 supplement from the federal government for UI. “It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work.”

Governor Tony Evers has questioned the logic that ending additional unemployment insurance would solve the labor shortage problem in the state, which predates the pandemic. ?“We had trouble finding people to come to work before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic,” he told the press on June 1. ?“I just feel confident that the people that are receiving unemployment compensation with an unemployment rate now that is similar to before the pandemic, need those resources to live on,” he said. 

But so far, the Governor hasn’t stated definitively that he would veto the Republican measure. ?“I will take a look at it,” he said when asked whether he would veto the bill. 

Brewer, who has two kids at home, says that he needs that extra boost. He just found out that his landlord is selling his house, so on top of everything, he has to find a new place to live. ?“It’s a good thing we do still get unemployment to help us stand a little better than what we usually would.” 

Lauren Stevens, another worker at the arena, feels a similar anxiety. Stevens is a retired educator, and has used her job doing concessions to make ends meet. The basketball season starts up again in the fall, so after the Bucks’ playoff run, there won’t be work again until the new season. Stevens and other workers will be able to use unemployment benefits until then, but only if the legislature doesn’t cut off the federal supplement. 

“I’m concerned?—?reason being I’m retired, on social security and this is a part time position for myself,” Stevens said. ?“I’m a little concerned with this gap.” 

Much of the discourse around getting rid of unemployment insurance centers around the notion that the benefit discourages people from returning to work. That conclusion isn’t born out in research on the subject, though. In ?“A Short Review of Recent Evidence on the Disincentive Effects of Unemployment Insurance and New Evidence from New York State, University of Chicago professors, who studied an increase in unemployment insurance in New York, found only a slight propensity for people on UI to continue benefits when they increased.

More recently, a study by a group of Yale economists found that there was no evidence that the $600 a week benefit provided by the CARES Act disincentivized people from returning to work. 

“Unemployment rates in Wisconsin don’t support the overdrawn and quite dramatic, self serving conclusion that there are a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines who are ready to go to go to work in otherwise low wage, no benefit, insecure, crappy jobs if $300 a week, supplemental unemployment benefits were eliminated,” said Peter Rickman, president of MASH. At the same time, Rickman sees the current economic landscape as an opportunity for workers. ?“The way the labor market is constructed right now is such that the balance of power instead of being wholly and entirely in favor of the boss class, has had a slight tipping towards the working class,” he said. 

Senator Melissa Agard (D?16th District) argues that cutting UI won’t put people back to work as much as it would harm struggling families. ?“It’s really unfortunate that my Republican colleagues in Wisconsin are continuing down the same path that they were on pre-pandemic: making it harder for people to be able to get ahead and take care of themselves and their families,” Agard told In These Times. ?“Folks are having a hard time finding people for jobs primarily because they’re not paying people a living wage, or respectable wage to do those jobs.”

Agard feels concerned the pandemic has only exacerbated the wealth gap that was in place before COVID-19 hit. ?“In my opinion, we should be learning about how it is that supporting people actually provides them with a step up for themselves and their families in our future,” she said. 

For Debbie Steidl, who normally does stagehand work for touring Broadway shows at the Marcus Performing Art Center (PAC) in Milwaukee, the end of the expanded unemployment benefits won’t necessarily spell financial doom. That’s in part because years in the business as a union member, and support from family and friends, left her in a good position to make it through the pandemic year.

In addition to other theater work, Steidl, who is a member of IATSE Local 18, had been in show business for 35 years when theaters across the country closed down due to the pandemic, bringing her work to a screeching halt in March 2020.

“I just reached the point on my seniority level where I have steady income, where I can actually plan things and all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under me,” Steidl recalled. ?“I was very angry.”

Fortunately, the PAC had just put on a showing of The Lion King, so she lived off the income she made from that last show before hunkering down. 

Since the shutdown, Steidl has gone to work for a few events, such as the Democratic National Convention. ?“There were little bits here and there, jobs not enough to support myself, but enough to keep me interested in my job,” she said. When not taking short-term gigs when they come, Steidl has taken unemployment, but she feels optimistic about her financial situation as theater begins to come back later this season. 

“Some of the riggers and foreman of the Union are already going into the Summerfest grounds,” Steidl said. ?“We just had a union meeting a couple days ago, and they said that things are going to start looking up, like towards the end of July and August. So we’re being hopeful.”

On June 9, the Wisconsin legislature voted to end contracts for federal employment benefits beginning the earliest week the measure is passed. That depends on Evers signing the bill. 

As for Brewer, he has hope, but the crisis is not over. ?“It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work,” he said. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: SHEILA REGAN is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has covered news for the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Salon, as well as the Sahan Journal, The Uptake, and other publications. She also
writes about the arts.


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IN 21 STATES ENDING ALL PANDEMIC UI PROGRAMS EARLY, 3 IN 4 WILL LOSE ALL JOBLESS AID

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Nearly 4 Million Workers to Lose Lifeline Unemployment Payments Starting June 12

NATIONWIDE — In the 21 states ending early their participation in all federal pandemic unemployment programs, three quarters of the workers now receiving jobless aid—nearly 2.3 million people—will be left with no state or federal jobless aid at all, according to a new analysis released today by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

The greatest numbers of workers affected by the pandemic unemployment cutoffs will be in Texas, Ohio, Maryland, Georgia, Indiana, Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida. In Texas, a staggering four in five workers (81.9%) currently receiving unemployment payments—totaling 1.2 million workers, 59.3% of whom are workers of color—will lose all unemployment income support.

“The post-pandemic recovery has barely started. Employment remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Millions of people are still out of work and need the income support from unemployment insurance to get by,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “So it’s unconscionable that these 21 Republican governors have unilaterally decided that no one in their state needs any pandemic jobless aid anymore and that it’s OK to pull the plug on these programs early.”

“This severe, abrupt, and ill-advised cutoff of pandemic jobless aid hurts the workers and families who need that income support, harms the small businesses that depend on those workers to spend money as customers, and will set back the economic recovery in those states,” added Dixon.

The first wave of premature cutoffs begins on Saturday, June 12, in four states: Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, and Missouri. Alaska will be ending only the $300 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) weekly supplemental payments, while the other three states will be terminating all pandemic unemployment programs. Twenty-one more states will follow suit through June and early July, although NELP has argued that the U.S. Department of Labor has legal authority to ensure that all eligible workers continue to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits through September 6.

More than 3.9 million workers in 25 states will lose the weekly $300 FPUC payments. Workers of color will bear the brunt, as nearly half (over 46%) of unemployment insurance (UI) recipients in those states are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Workers losing out on lifeline payments will face an economy that is far from fully recovered. The May jobs report showed 9.3 million people unemployed, with another 5.3 million only working part-time but still seeking full-time work. The economy is down 7.6 million jobs (5%) from pre-pandemic Feb. 2020 levels. With families still reeling from loss, lack of childcare, and ever-present concerns about getting sick on the job, FPUC and all UI funds remain a crucial lifeline.

“The past year has demanded bold solutions to unprecedented levels of unemployment, with the additional federal unemployment funds serving as a necessary stopgap in lieu of structural reform. At this pivotal moment, elected officials need to get behind critical reforms to prevent future failures of our unemployment system, so we can avoid the type of harmful actions we’re now seeing at the state level,” said Dixon.

Federal pandemic programs are still helping millions of people and their families get through the worst economic crisis in over a century. For jobless workers and their families in states where Republican governors have opted out, the ramifications will be far-reaching:

  • Over 3.9 million workers will lose the weekly $300 FPUC supplement in the 25 states.
  • 3,951,578 people receiving unemployment payments as of May 15 will be affected—all of them losing the $300 weekly FPUC benefit supplement and more than half (57.5%) abruptly losing all unemployment benefits.
  • In the 21 states ending participation in all of the pandemic programs, nearly 2.3 million people, who represent 74.5% of those receiving unemployment benefits in those states, will be left with no state or federal unemployment aid at all.
  • Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color are nearly half (over 46%) of UI recipients in the states ending pandemic unemployment programs early.
  • Of the 25 states cutting pandemic unemployment payments, 11 of them have 40% or higher people-of-color UI recipients, and eight have 50% or higher.

With unemployed people spending money at higher rates, federal assistance helps stimulate the economy just as businesses and industries begin to reopen, in addition to keeping families afloat. States that are prematurely ending federal pandemic unemployment programs threaten to stymie a fuller recovery.

READ THE DATA BRIEF:
3.9 Million Workers Face Premature Cutoff of Pandemic Unemployment Programs

This blog originally appeared at Nelp on June 8, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: For 50 years, NELP has sought to ensure that America upholds, for all workers, the promise of opportunity and economic security through work. NELP fights for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections and support for low-wage workers and unemployed workers.


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U.S. added 559,000 jobs in May and unemployment dropped to 5.8%

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

After a disappointing April jobs report, May looked significantly better with 559,000 new jobs added to the economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s still a little short of the 650,000 jobs analysts predicted, but unemployment ticked down from 6.1% to 5.8%, the lowest since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. “America is on the move again,” President Joe Biden declared in response to the report. “No other major economy is gaining jobs as quickly as ours, and none of this success is an accident,” he said, crediting the American Rescue Plan with boosting the recovery.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould described the overall report as “a promising sign that the recovery is on track.” Gould continued, ”If this pace continues over the next year, we will likely get down to 4% unemployment by mid-2022 and will be fully recovered before the end of 2022, fully absorbing losses plus population growth.” 

Another piece of good news is that women gained jobs after losing massive numbers of jobs throughout the pandemic, accounting for 56.2% of the new jobs in May. It’s just a start—women would need to gain jobs at that rate for 13 months straight to get back to where things stood in the before times, according to the National Women’s Law Center—but a start is better than another month of continuing to fall behind. Women’s labor force participation rose from 57.2% in April to 57.4% in May, still behind the February 2020 rate of 59.2%.

Nonetheless, there are still 7.6 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, with a total jobs gap of at least 8.6 million (to account for jobs growth that would normally have happened since then).

Once again, in contrast to the claims that restaurants are having trouble finding workers because of high unemployment benefits, the hospitality industry had big growth, adding 292,000 jobs. And while wages rose in hospitality, a possible sign of a labor shortage, EPI’s Heidi Shierholz notes that “the wages of typical workers in leisure and hospitality plummeted in the recession and have largely just regained their pre-COVID trend—i.e. they are now in the ballpark of where they’d be if COVID had never happened.” Josh Bivens had previously argued that rising wages in restaurants are consistent with the return of tipping customers, and may therefore not even represent higher wages being paid by employers.

There’s a long way to go, and too many people are still without jobs—remember that 7.6 million jobs are missing just from what existed in February 2020—as Republican governors make the political, not economic, decision to cut off the $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits supplement because supposedly that $300 is what’s keeping people from looking for work (even though it’s not). That’s increasing the suffering across the country even as people show, month by month, that they are looking to get back to work.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 4, 2021 Reprinted with permission.

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


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How Cuts to Unemployment Benefits Will Hurt Rural People

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Aallyah Wright, Author at Mississippi Today

Republican governors in at least 22 states are ending federal unemployment assistance. The cuts will hit hard in rural areas and communities of color.

After Lisa Wilkinson, 54, got laid off from her factory job in December 2019, she knew it would be difficult to replace it. She’s older and lives in rural Tennessee, where work is scarce.

She immediately began her search, but in March 2020, Covid-19 forced employers to shut their doors.

She applied for state and federal pandemic unemployment and received $300 a week plus back pay in June 2020?—?a lifeline, she said in an interview. Several weeks later, the benefits ran out, and she still couldn’t land a job. Then, in the midst of that, Wilkinson, her 79-year-old husband and her 82-year-old mother contracted Covid-19.

Wilkinson recovered, but her husband and mother did not.

“If you’re not a saver, you lose everything you got. And if you lost a spouse or member in your family?—?last year, this year?—?it makes it worse,” Wilkinson said. ?“You have anxiety, depression … and thoughts of where your next meal is coming from.”

Wilkinson feared for her health and that of others if she entered the workforce, but she kept applying anyway, she said. To date, she has sought more than 300 jobs. Since January, she has recertified and reapplied for extended benefits at least three times. Her claim is still processing, she said.

Now, she’s waiting?—?on unemployment benefits or a job, whichever comes first.

“People are like, ?‘Jobs [are] out there, if you need ?‘em,’” she said. ?“But they’re not the ones trying to apply for ?‘em.”

In at least 22 states, the federal unemployment assistance Wilkinson is fighting to get is being retracted by Republican governors, who plan to end the pandemic-related aid as early as June.

The governors argue that the benefits discourage people from taking jobs. But economists say cutting off federal aid affects people’s livelihoods?—?especially for people of color and residents of rural areas saddled with slow job growth, lackluster transportation options and limited opportunities.

“We know [communities of color in rural areas] suffer from chronic high unemployment and have been really hurt by the pandemic, so I do think that this is an issue that’s gonna be hitting different communities harder,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning independent think tank.

“We saw in the data that African Americans are really taking advantage of these programs,” he said, ?“and they’re going to be hurt by the revocation of some of these programs. I would say economic distressed communities, writ large, are going to be losing out on a lot of these benefits.”

About 16 million people nationwide would receive a total of $100 billion in benefits if all states continued federal unemployment funds through their set expiration date of Labor Day, Sept. 6, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data by The Century Foundation. Of the states that planned to pull benefits, almost $11 billion in unemployment benefits could be lost, affecting nearly 2 million workers, the analysis found.

States have never before made this reversal?—?accepting the federal funds, then turning them down?—?Stettner said.

Montana was the first state to announce it would end the program, on May 4, cutting off the benefits June 27. Other states followed suit, including Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. All are led by Republican governors. 

Focused on Vacancies

Economists told Stateline that the decision to opt out of pandemic unemployment affects the recipients who receive the funds, which in turn reduces the flow of money into local economies. 

Some Republican governors are focusing on filling job vacancies.

“Eliminating these pandemic programs will not be a silver bullet for employers to find employees, but we currently have about 116,000 available jobs in the state,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in a statement.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and President Joe Biden’s administration will ?“take concrete action to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks,” a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Labor said in a statement. The statement doesn’t specify whether states are required to continue providing payments, as some advocacy groups have argued the department could force them to do.

Some governors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?—?which also called for an end to the $300 weekly extended benefits?—?opposed the extra support because, they said, benefits would disincentivize people to go back to work in industries such as food service and hospitality.

However, there is no evidence that federal pandemic unemployment benefits had a substantial effect on employment after the $600 benefits expired in July 2020, according to a February 2021 study by a researcher with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

More than half of people who received a $600 federal unemployment check returned to work before the supplement expired, found a separate February paper from the University of Chicago Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.

Many lawmakers’ views on the extended benefits fall along partisan lines.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it’s time for employees to work to bring the economy up to speed.

“The $300 federal supplement helped thousands of Arkansans make it through this time, so it served its purpose. Now we need Arkansans back on the job,” Hutchinson said in a May 11 statement.

Arkansas state Sen. Ron Caldwell, a Republican, told Stateline he agreed with the governor’s decisions to end the assistance early. Caldwell pointed to available jobs in the agriculture field in his state. People who are unemployed, but afraid of getting Covid-19, he said, have to ?“balance their fear of going to work.

“It’s not very fair for working class people to get up every day and people stay at home because they afraid to get sick,” Caldwell said in a phone call. ?“Teachers, first responders are going into the field. I know [Covid-19] is very real, but we can’t stick our head in the sand and continue on with people having grocery shelves stocked and other things that have to be done.” 

Across the aisle, Arkansas state Rep. Fredrick J. Love, a Democrat, said painting the community with a broad brush hurts households.

“In rural Arkansas, some [businesses] aren’t coming back. Some are permanently closed,” Love said. ?“If people qualify for pandemic unemployment, it’s apparent they were working before. I think they’re looking for work and can’t find it or it was less [money] than they were looking for.”

In Georgia, state Rep. Kim Schofield, a Democrat, said the responsibility rests in part on some employers who don’t pay livable wages.

“We need workplace salaries to match the 21st century workplace,” Schofield said. ?“There are larger companies who have made billions on the backs of workers. They can now give incentives back to workers, on-site child care, or raise some of the wages up to $15 and start there.” 

Although it’s challenging for smaller businesses to find employees, there isn’t a broad labor shortage, and people would go to work if jobs were available, said Wayne Vroman, an economist with The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy D.C.-based think tank.

Vroman added that the unemployment cutoffs put rural people of color at a larger disadvantage because they face higher unemployment rates. Although rural people don’t participate in unemployment programs as much, there are many who do, and if cut off from the benefits, would suffer, Vroman said.

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., said the true indicator of a labor shortage is rising wages, but there’s not accelerating wage growth across the board.

There is evidence, however, of a shortage in leisure and hospitality fields, he added.

“Wages in leisure and hospitality employment make up just 4% of all wages in the U.S. economy, so this is a very small portion of the economy where employers may be struggling to find folks,” Cooper said. ?“There’s no reason why difficulty for those employers should mean that we should turn off unemployment benefits for everyone.”

The industries experiencing shortages, such as leisure and trucking, don’t provide job security for workers, Stettner argued. Taking a ?“sledgehammer to the problem” by ending benefits won’t address deeper issues, he added.

Domino Effect

About 9.8 million working-age people don’t have jobs, even as the national unemployment rate is lower than last year. The rate stands at 6.1%, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, and only 19 states and the District of Columbia exceeded the national rate. This is more magnified for Black and Latino people, who face higher unemployment rates than white people, at about 10% and 8%, respectively.

Meanwhile, states’ troubled unemployment systems have been making headlines for months. Long wait times, website crashes and high traffic at call centers all contributed to barriers for people trying to navigate the unemployment system, according to New America, a public policy think tank.

And widespread unemployment fraud hurt all jobless residents in state after state: Maryland officials have frozen claimants’ accounts because of potential unemployment fraud. Residents in Colorado are struggling to verify documents through a new technology system designed to halt potential fraud.

Communities of color also may have a harder time getting approved for unemployment assistance. A July 2020 survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found that Black and Latino workers were underrepresented in unemployment benefits. Black and Latino workers made up about 40% of the unemployed nationally, but were fewer than 20% of the recipients, the poll found.

The racial disparities in unemployment programs have always existed, said Michelle Holder, an economist and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Since 1972, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first began collecting data on unemployment among Black Americans, the rate has been more often than not twice the amount as white unemployment, according to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Holder added that Black people tend to live in states where unemployment payments are lower.

“There’s already an imbalance,” Holder said.

And rural areas benefit the most from government programs because job growth is slower. Rural residents tend to be poorer, older, and lack transportation, access to the internet and health care.

Between 2010 and 2017, the yearly job growth for rural America was 0.5% compared with 1.8% in urban areas, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

The families hardest hit in rural areas face other hurdles, from food and housing insecurity to difficulties paying for utilities, health and child care, said Neil Sealy, executive director the Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots group that focuses on social and economic justice.

“This is a domino effect that affects people,” Sealy said. ?“Not having the money to survive will kick off a whole bunch of other things.”

This is why some grassroots organizers, economists and lawmakers insist that governors continue the assistance as well as administer unemployment programs more equitably.

“If we’re counting on the system to help the economy and help to reduce poverty,” said Stettner of The Century Foundation, ?“we cannot leave it to the states.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aallyah Wright reports on rural affairs and leads race and equity coverage for Stateline. Previously, Aallyah worked for Mississippi Today, a digital nonprofit newsroom covering K?12 education and government in the Mississippi Delta?—?her home region. As a member of the Delta Bureau, she investigated Mississippi’s teacher shortage, finding it was six times worse than in 1998 when the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to alleviate the crisis. She is a 2020 Mississippi Humanities Council Preserver of Mississippi Culture Award Recipient, 2019 StoryWorks Theater Fellow, and 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report. Wright graduated from Delta State University with a bachelor’s in journalism and minors in communication and theater. 


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Democrats call for UI system fix as millions face another lapse in benefits

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Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Senate Democrat overseeing unemployment issues, is calling on Congress to give the Labor Department $500 million to shore up the bewildered state unemployment system.

Hobbled by antiquated computer systems, state agencies responsible for paying out unemployment benefits have struggled to administer new emergency aid programs created for the millions of people pushed out of work during the pandemic, leaving many jobless people without much-needed aid for weeks.

And if lawmakers are unable to move quickly on their latest pandemic rescue package, the issue could mean that as many as 11.4 million workers could face yet another lapse in benefits when expanded unemployment programs expire again next month.

A bill released Wednesday by Wyden and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mark Warner (Va.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) is aimed at fixing those systemic issues, calling on the DOL to develop a uniform system for jobless benefits that states can use to remedy their systems.

“While enhanced jobless benefits have enabled millions and millions of families to pay the rent and buy groceries, state after state has been unable to get benefits out the door in a timely manner,” Wyden said in a statement. “My bill requires a complete overhaul of unemployment insurance technology, and paves the way for one website to apply for jobless benefits, not 53.”

But some state officials point the finger at Washington for not giving them adequate time to prevent a lapse in benefits, arguing that lawmakers have taken too long to approve extensions in the programs, resulting in delayed guidance on how to administer the changes.

As part of his $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, President Joe Biden has called on Congress to extend several federally funded CARES Act jobless benefit programs through September 2021. But, the legislation Democrats have proposed would only extend them through Aug. 29, 2021.

A Senate Finance committee staffer told POLITICO that Wyden is “certainly looking” at whether the proposals could fit into the relief package. But the measure would have to comply with the strict budget rules that accompany the fast-track process known as reconciliation that Democrats are using to pass the next Covid-19 aid package with a simple majority in the Senate.

Even if it is passed quickly under budget reconciliation, the bill won’t have an immediate effect, as it lays out a two-year timeline for implementation.

Currently, while DOL oversees the unemployment system rules and funds the administrative costs, it’s up to 53 individual state and territorial unemployment agencies to actually process unemployment claims and get the benefits into the pockets of those who qualify.

But their archaic systems have struggled under the fast pace of job losses caused by pandemic-related shutdowns throughout the past year and a wave of fraud targeting the beefed up unemployment benefits Congress provided under one of the pandemic aid packages.

As a result, any changes to jobless benefit programs have taken weeks for states to implement.

Some workers who used up all 39 weeks of their unemployment benefits offered under federal programs last year still haven’t been able to tap into the extra 11 weeks of benefit provided under the extension of unemployment aid enacted by Congress in December.

In California, six percent of unemployment claimants — 185,000 people — won’t have access to those benefits until March 7, according to California’s Employment Development Department.

“What’s the roadblock here?” California Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said in reaction to news of the delay last week. “The roadblock to getting money to massive amounts of people who need it and need it desperately is the same old problem. Dinosaur technology.”

But in New Jersey, state officials blamed Congress for not giving states enough time to stand up the latest round of benefits. New Jersey prioritized getting the $300 benefit out the door first, as it would help all people who were receiving unemployment. But about 75,000 workers whose unemployment benefits had expired were left in limbo as programmers worked to feverishly update the 11-week benefits extension into their system.

The issue was ultimately resolved on Saturday, but New Jersey’s labor commissioner said in a press conference last week that Congress waiting caused “significant pain” for these 75,000 workers, who represented about 5 percent of the state’s claimants.

“The frustrations our workers are feeling are taking place all over the nation right now, as a result of last minute federal action,” Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said, before the programming problem was resolved. “If [Congress] had acted just weeks before the expiration date they knew was looming for months, states would have had the time needed to keep benefits for some from lapsing at all.”

New Jersey’s technology system is in desperate need of upgrades. But other states that have spent large sums of money modernizing their systems are having the “exact same challenges with this subset of claimants,” Asaro-Angelo said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 10, 2021. 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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Unemployment Money Chaos Redux?; Clawing Back Dough From the Rich

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How many of you dealt with that chaos when it came to wrestling with the unemployment insurance system last year? Some of the rhetoric we heard was, “well that chaos was just the pandemic crush overwhelming the system”. Yes, that’s true in a very narrow sense—the system collapsed in many places, meaning people who were desperate to get a check to pay rent or for food had to wait months and months for a first check…and lots of people just gave up.

But, here’s the truth, folks—that’s a feature not a bug. So, as enhanced unemployment benefits are about to expire at the end of March but seem likely to be extended in a new stimulus bill, is this chaos going to continue to be as bad as it was a year ago? Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project and a leading national expert on the unemployment insurance system, tells us the status and how we fix the broken system.

Remember during the presidential campaign when Joe Biden promised not to raise taxes for anyone making less than $400,000? I thought, “well, that’s dumb”. Why should someone making say $250,000—which puts them in the one percent—not pay higher taxes? I figured right then that that line-in-the-sand $400K number was a purely stupid political calculation—let’s not piss off the people in the suburbs who voted for Trump who we want to get.

Really? Why not try a direct populist argument to reach a whole lot of people who are making under $100,000 and get angry about taxes because they have to pay a heavy load but see people making $250,000 paying a relatively small sum? I talk with Matt Gardner, senior fellow at the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, about taxing people above $400,000, why other well-off people shouldn’t pay higher taxes as well and, bonus, how Netflix is paying less than one percent taxes on a massive revenue boost (hint: legalized corruption!)

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on February 3, 2021. 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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“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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