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Tammy Johnson Leads Wyoming’s Labor Movement, Fighting for Struggling Workers and the Unemployed

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With the Wyoming Legislature scheduled to begin an emergency session later this week, Wyoming State AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Tammy Johnson (USW) is taking the lead fighting for workers in her home state. Policymakers are considering a bill that includes three major components: unemployment insurance (UI), workers’ compensation and rent relief. The UI provisions would hold employers harmless as the state provides additional money to cover the increase in UI claims, and the rent relief portion would provide additional eviction protections for tenants.

However, Johnson and the state federation are working to change the state’s workers’ compensation system so that all front-line workers who get infected will be presumed to have been infected on the job. Currently, most employers are exempted from the state’s workers’ compensation system unless their employees are performing “extra hazardous” jobs. Johnson said legislators were surprised to learn that many grocery store workers in Wyoming would not be eligible for compensation under the proposed legislation.

“We have to have some kind of protection in place for workers,” she explained. “If they don’t have health care because their hours have been cut to part time and they can’t take unemployment because there’s work available, then they’ll have to go to work sick. You would not want sick grocery store workers to be in the stores.”

Johnson was also appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon to be on the Business and Financial Sector Task Force that is providing policy recommendations for reopening Wyoming’s economy. She said that one of the local unions she has helped is United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13214, whose members mine soda ash. Working with her colleagues on the task force and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, she helped ensure that those USW members who were placed on furlough wouldn’t be penalized by the UI system for drawing on their pensions or for taking a “voluntary” furlough. “The challenge going forward is to educate everyone that all workers contributed to these systems and we have to modernize thinking about compensation packages,” she said.

“The backbone of Wyoming is exposed right now. Big corporations are keeping us in the shade, but it’s the workers who keep these companies up and running,” Johnson explained. “Companies may leave, but the workers are still going to be here, and they are the people who make up our communities….COVID-19 has made it clear where the strength in our economy is: It’s with the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on May 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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Unemployment insurance boost is tiny next to tax cuts for the rich, this week in the war on workers

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Republicans are doing their best to push people off of unemployment, with governors reopening states so that the most vulnerable workers are forced back into unsafe workplaces. But the Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz write that the extra $600 in unemployment insurance has been the best economic response to coronavirus—and it needs to be extended.

“Money spent on continuing crucial unemployment insurance provisions will help avoid a prolonged period of high unemployment that will do far more serious and persistent damage to the economy,” they write. “In the last six weeks, close to 30 million workers have applied for unemployment insurance. It’s worth noting as a point of comparison that those 30 million workers would need to be provided an extra $1,400 per week for a year to match the fiscal size of the 2017 tax cuts aimed at corporations and the rich.”

This blog originally appeared on Daily Kos on May 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Millions of gig workers are still waiting for unemployment benefits

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Rebecca Rainey

Most of the estimated 23 million independent contractors and gig workers made newly eligible last month for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic are still waiting for relief.

Six weeks after the pandemic set off a continuing wave of massive layoffs, only 21 states have started paying out benefits to self-employed workers and others not traditionally eligible, according to the Labor Department. That’s up from 10 last week. The payments are being made under a new temporary program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

New Jersey is one of the states where self-employed workers are still waiting. More than 100,000 self-employed workers applied for jobless benefits there over the past several weeks, but the state won’t begin paying out the benefits until Friday, according to New Jersey state officials. They said the state will then need to take more time to verify those workers’ eligibility.

“The Department has worked hard over the past month to get this program up and running despite the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus, and it is now available,” said New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. “While it will take time to determine eligibility for everyone who seeks PUA benefits, the process has begun.”

States reporting the largest number of weekly claims, including California and Florida, have just started to get their systems up and running this week.

California, which launched its new program on April 28, has received 190,000 applications already from self-employed and contract workers, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. But state officials have warned the program is threatened by its overloaded system.

“We are getting our arms around this unprecedented volume,” Newsom said Wednesday.

California’s unemployment system has been slowed and strained by the more than 3.7 million applications it’s received since layoffs began in early March, officials say. The state has distributed more than $6 billion in benefits so far.

Florida, whose unemployment system has also been overwhelmed as more than a million people struggled to get assistance, did not start accepting applications from independent contractors and those are self-employed until this past Tuesday.

The instructions sent out by the Department of Economic Opportunity urged people who had turned in applications before April 4 to try again now. DEO’s own data shows that more than 266,000 people who had applied with the state since March 15 had been deemed ineligible, although the information released by the agency does not specify why people are being turned away.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia affirmed last week that his agency is “working very closely every day with states across the country to help them get these benefits to the Americans who are entitled to them.”

According to DOL, it’s delivered more than $750 million of $1 billion in emergency administrative funding provided by Congress to state unemployment offices to help them handle the surge in claims and implement the new program. “As they request this funding, we’re distributing it quickly,” Scalia said. “And if they don’t request it. We’re contacting them to see how we can help.”

States have been struggling to figure out how to calculate weekly benefit levels for these self-employed workers, whose wage information may be contained on multiple forms and is harder to verify.

California, which last year passed a sweeping bill aimed at compelling businesses to reclassify many independent contractors as employees, has said gig economy workers should be eligible to apply for benefits under the state’s normal unemployment insurance program.

But somedrivers for Uber and Lyft in California say the state is calculating their weekly benefits to be $0, because their companies aren’t sharing payroll information with the state unemployment agency.

Those app-based workers must then request an investigation from the state into their wage information — adding more time to the process.

Workers have also complained they haven’t even been able to apply for benefits, hindered by jammed phone lines and crashing websites, as state unemployment agencies scrambled to beef up their systems following the passage of the massive unemployment benefit extension included under the CARES Act.

Florida’s unemployment website, which was first installed in 2013, had been routinely been flagged by state auditors before the coronarvirus outbreak started. But the surge in jobless claims overwhelmed the system, forcing the state to leave it offline for hours. It was offline all of last weekend as the state tried to play catch up on processing claims. Florida decided to start accepting paper applications due to the website’s constant failings.

The DOL’s Office of the Inspector General recently warned that state legacy computer systems used to process unemployment benefits weren’t up to the job, and threaten “the management and oversight of UI benefits.”

“The risk of fraud and improper payments is even higher under PUA because claimants can self-certify their UI qualifications,” the IG wrote, urging the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration to work with states to establish better methods of detecting fraud and recovering improper payments.

DOL officials say the department has been reaching out to the states to discuss and offer assistance with IT and call center issues.

But according to economists, all workers, including those who are eligible for traditional benefits and don’t have to apply under the new federal program, have been struggling to get the unemployment relief in their pockets.

For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the past month, three to four additional people tried to apply but could not get through the system, according to an survey conducted by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In total, DOL’s data indicates only 14 percent of the 12 million workers who filed for benefits in the month of March were paid an unemployment check, said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “While many of the claims that started in mid-March were likely paid not until April,” he said, “this figure is yet another sign underscoring the major structural challenges facing the unemployment program as it responds to the COVID-19 crisis.”

How an individual’s claim is processed varies widely from state to state.

“On the high end, Rhode Island made initial payments to 51 [percent] of the 60,000 individuals who filed claims,” he said. “On the low end, Florida only paid 2.4 [percent] of the 280,500 individuals who managed to file a claim, the third lowest in the country, just above Indiana, which stood at 2 [percent].”

In Iowa, one of the first states to get its PUA system up and running, officials pointed to its low unemployment rate and rurality as reasons why it was able to move so quickly.

“For the last couple years, our unemployment’s only been like 2.5 percent,” Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said. “So our unemployment fund started out really full.”

“In a lot of areas we didn’t have the shutdown as early as some of the other states,” he added, “so we were probably in a better spot than most other states, and able to attack it.”

Eleanor Mueller, Gary Fineout, Katy Murphy and Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 30, 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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’No words for this’: 10 million workers file jobless claims in just two weeks

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Rebecca Rainey
Nolan D. McCaskill

Unemployment claims soared to a record-smashing 6.6million last week, the Labor Department reported, more than double the previous week, signaling more economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic.

The rush to claim unemployment benefits occurred as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus rose above 200,000 and government measures to contain the epidemic shut down increasing swaths of the U.S. economy, with residents in 37 states now ordered to stay at home.

The total job losses in just two weeks — almost 10 million Americans — amounts to a staggering, sudden blow to American workers never seen before in the U.S. economy. The labor market in the coming weeks could blow past the 15 million jobs lost at the peak of the 18-month Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.

President Donald Trump, who built his record for the past three years in office around economic growth and job growth, has now seen gains from much of the past decade evaporate in a matter of weeks. An official U.S. jobless rate that sat at 3.5% in February is poised to top 10% in April alone, eclipsing the peak of the last recession.

“In one line: No words for this,” Pantheon Macroeconomics Chief Economist Ian Shepherdson wrote in reaction to the numbers.

“What we are going through now dwarfs anything we’ve ever seen, including the worst weeks of the great recession,” tweeted Heidi Shierholz, chief economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “I have spent the last twenty years studying the labor market and have never seen anything like it.”

The new figure, which represents unemployment claims filed the week that ended March 28, marks the largest number of weekly claims ever recorded since the government began collecting such data in 1967. The second-highest number of claims were the 3.3 million filed the week before, and the third-highest about 700,000 claims filed one week in 1982.

The new unemployment claims figure was seasonally adjusted, but the raw numerical increase was still a record-breaking 5.8 million claims.

In a prepared statement, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said, “The administration continues to act quickly to address this impact on American workers.” He then pointed to the recent coronavirus relief package approved by Congress and a final rule issued by the Department of Labor Wednesday enacting temporary paid leave requirements for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Covered employers must give workers who are quarantined or experiencing coronavirus symptoms two weeks paid sick leave, and an additional ten weeks leave to workers who are caring for children stuck at home.

Reports from state unemployment offices, which are still struggling to meet the high volume of requests for unemployment benefits, continue to suggest DOL’s weekly claims figure significantly understates the real number of Americans seeking help.

“We’re hoping today’s reading will be the peak, but we can’t be sure,” Shepherdson of Pantheon wrote in an email. “In any event, total layoffs between the March and April payroll surveys look destined to reach perhaps 16-to-20 [million], consistent with the unemployment rate leaping to 13-to-16 [percent].”

Additionally, the number doesn’t capture self-employed workers, who are not eligible for state unemployment benefits. But under a new temporary program that was signed into law one day before the reporting period ended, gig workers will be eligible to apply to state unemployment offices for up to 39 weeks unemployment benefits that will be funded entirely by the federal government. States are awaiting guidance from DOL on how to put this new program into effect.

Also left out of the count are people who left the workforce voluntarily for any reason — including to care for a sick family member, a child home from school, or because they are sick, themselves, from Covid-19, the illness caused by the unique coronavirus.

The Congressional Budget Office released an updated economic forecast on Thursday that suggests the effects of mass joblessness and business closures will sting for some time, with an unemployment rate as high as 9 percent by the end of 2021.

In the nearterm, the CBO projected that the jobless rate will blow past 10 percent in the second quarter of this year, with GDP expected to fall by 7 percent over the next three months.

Director Phillip Swagel cautioned that CBO’s estimates are “very preliminary“ and “based on information about the economy that was available through this morning,” warning the numbers are subject to change and even worsen. The projections assume that social distancing continues across the country for an average of three months and that later outbreaks of the virus are possible, he said.

The increase in claims remained concentrated in the services industries, according to DOL, particularly accommodation and food services. States also reported increases in claims from workers in thehealth care, manufacturing, retail and construction industries.

The greatest number of new unemployment claims were in California, which processed an estimated 878,727 claims last week. That figure is up from 186,333 in the previous week and more than 21 times the typical volume the department handled before the pandemic.

California’s employment agency, which is handling the onslaught of claims, has said it has not experienced delays, but Twitter is awash with complaints from workers about overloaded phone lines, difficulties filing online and confusion about how to apply for federal CARES Act relief as independent contractors.

To speed up the approval process, the department has added hundreds of employees to process claims. It has also relaxed its initial verification requirements at the direction of the state’s labor secretary, allowing the checks to go out more quickly.

After California, Pennsylvania was next with 405,880 new claims.

New York, which leads the country in confirmed coronavirus cases, reported 366,403 new claims last week. That figure, however, is likely a massive undercount. The official tally is almost certainly missing vast numbers of New Yorkers who have been frantically attempting to file claims with the state’s outdated website and telephone lines to no avail.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence of dropped calls and online applications interrupted by crashes, the DOL report sheds some more light onto just how few residents are getting through: New York state had to revise its jobless claim numbers from earlier in the month upward by nearly 85 percent.

“Today’s jobless report shows the grim reality of the coronavirus’ crippling effect on our economy and working families,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “The Department of Labor must move heaven and earth to — as quickly as possible — get the expanded unemployment benefits Congress passed last week into the pockets of workers who have lost their paychecks through no fault of their own. America’s workers and families cannot afford a delay.”

New Jersey, which has recorded 22,255 positive cases of Covid-19 since early last month, reported 205,515 unemployment claims.

Illinois has been taking steps to update and streamline unemployment claims. The state received more than 114,000 claims last week.

Over the past few weeks, the Illinois Department of Employment Security website has been moved to a new hardware infrastructure to handle the increased demand. Web, storage and processing capacity has also been improved to meet the increased needs, according to the governor’s office. The state says call center capacity has been increased and daily call center hours have been extended.

Florida will start accepting paper applications for unemployment benefits as a result of ongoing crashes and failures with its online system, Ken Lawson, the head of the state agency that processes claims, said Thursday.

Florida’s online system, CONNECT, went offline for hours Wednesday as the state dealt with an unprecedented surge of jobless claims. Florida had more than 222,000 claims last week.

Lawson, director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, announced the move at a town hall meeting with two Democratic legislators. He also apologized for the ongoing problems. The beginning of the town hall was disrupted by hackers and others who cursed at Lawson and the legislators.

The “next week or two” is going to be difficult, Lawson said.

Katy Murphy, Caitlin Emma, Shia Kapos, Joe Anuta,Gary Fineout and Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 2, 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.

About the Author: Nolan D. McCaskill is a national political reporter covering the 2020 presidential race.

He previously covered Congress and authored the Huddle newsletter at POLITICO, where he started as an inaugural member of POLITICO’s Journalism Institute in 2014 before accepting a yearlong fellowship through 2015, later becoming a breaking news reporter and briefly covering the White House.

Nolan is a December 2014 graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. He was editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, The Famuan, and a former producer for his university’s live television newscasts.

Nolan is PJI’s inaugural Emerging Communicator and a 2017-18 National Press Foundation Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow.


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Millions of People Can’t Pay Rent Tomorrow. Here’s How Some Are Organizing.

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Image result for mindy isser

As April 1 looms and the first rent payment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic becomes due, countless people wonder how they’ll be able to afford to pay. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, millions have had their hours cut, been furloughed, or laid off. A whopping 3.3 million have applied for unemployment benefits, and some say the unemployment rate could reach 30%. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25%.

The cost of rent has skyrocketed the past few decades, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the $7.25 wage took effect in 2009. And as worker productivity has soared to new heights, studies show that wages have stagnated across the board. This has been a problem for working people even in times of normalcy—in expensive urban cores like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, many bounce from friends’ couches to shelters and even sometimes to their own cars. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crisis is understandably exploding: Those who were able to just barely pay their rent before are now scrambling to keep the landlord at bay.

Housing activists have been calling for a reprieve on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and numerous cities states have reacted quickly, placing a temporary moratorium on evictions or a pause on housing court. But none yet have frozen rent payments, and tomorrow is April 1—and the rent is due.

While the fear and panic that people may feel when they’re unable to pay their rent or mortgage can seem individual and unique, it’s actually shared between the millions of others who are in the same boat. Right to the City Alliance, a national network of more than 80 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations, is hoping to turn that collective anxiety into collective action. The alliance is calling for an immediate cancellation of rent and mortgage payments through the duration of the public health and economic crisis for all renters, homeowners and small businesses and a three-month recovery period. These demands expand beyond a rent and mortgage freeze and include calling for the immediate release of those being held in pre-trial and immigrant detention, an indefinite suspension of utility shutoffs, and a guarantee of unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave, health care, and a living wage for all workers.

For many, rent cancellation is urgently needed to ward off personal financial catastrophe. Coya Crespin of Community Alliance of Tenants of Portland, Oregon, said in a statement, “As a pregnant single parent without any savings, and now schools being shut down, it has been difficult keeping my kids fed. Many of the members of the housing organization I’m a member of have been contacting me afraid of not being able to pay rent in April. The stimulus package check that politicians are lifting up as a solution doesn’t even cover one month’s rent in most cases. People are beyond stressed. I’m beyond stressed.”

Many of these demands have been voiced for years, but have been popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the #HomesGuarantee platform, which would implement a national rent control standard and a just-cause requirement for evictions.Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders agrees that “along with pausing mortgage payments, evictions, and utility shutoffs, we must place a moratorium on rent payments” during the coronavirus pandemic. And because President Trump’s recovery proposal is a paltry $1,200—not even enough to cover rent in many cities—tenants (and even some homeowners) are being forced to make a public declaration that, without more aid, they can’t (and won’t) pay. Housing activists are using this moment of true desperation to demand the support they deserve—but there are some disagreements on the way forward.

While Right to the City Alliance is pushing for an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments throughout the coronavirus crisis, and for a three-month period after it ends, others are calling for rent strikes if the government doesn’t act. David Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance, said his network is “supporting a diversity of tactics in the alliance.” Rent Strike 2020, a new organizing campaign working in partnership with Socialist Alternative and the Rose Caucus, a group of socialists running for both state and federal House and Senate seats, is demanding “every Governor, in every state: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for two months, or face a rent strike.” Tenants in New York are waiting for Governor Cuomo to provide some relief, but are prepared to take matters into their own hands and go on a rent strike if he does not act.

Davin Cardenas, National Field Organizer at the Right to the City Alliance said, “We see rent strikes as a collective action that comes from deep organizing on the local level and some of our member organizations are going to use that tactic. We need people to come together, organize, and join the movement for long-term and transformative struggle so we can fundamentally change the housing system and win homes for all.”

The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its COVID-19 Tenant Organizing Guide, urges people to be strategic and think long and hard about what their demands really are: “A rent strike is a tool, not a demand,” the guide states. It specifies, “In a situation where the demand is ‘stop collecting rent from me,’ it’s questionable how effective a rent strike would be. To put it another way, how does withholding rent pressure a landlord to suspend rent?”

There are a number of tactics being put forward in this moment, but one thing is for certain: In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the housing movement is empowering tenants to take big and bold action. No one can predict what will happen on or immediately after April 1, when millions potentially don’t pay their rent, but Cardenas said, “It’s not likely that we’ll see relief, and even the relief that comes in before May 1 won’t be sufficient for what our families need across the country. There is not going to be a return to normalcy or a return to business as usual.”

To sustain any long-term movement—and to win real power for tenants—it’s going to take more than one-off rent strikes or single issue demands. It’s going to take building powerful, working-class organizations. The Philadelphia Tenants Union, in its guide, writes “Building strong, durable organization among tenants where there is an abundance of leaders and widespread trust yields the most successful and lasting results.” This must be the lesson for our movements going forward. April 1 may indeed be a pivotal moment in a growing housing movement that is being propelled forward by the crisis of this moment. How we help to steer the real hardships that so many workers are facing into a sustained and determined fight in the days that follow, however, will determine whether we can transform this moment of collective suffering into collective power.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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Ivanka Trump promised her dad would deliver a great family leave plan. Here’s what we got.

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Ivanka Trump once promised that if her father was elected, she would ensure paid family leave was a staple in every workplace, and Donald Trump promised the program would finance itself.

Two years later, the Trump administration is no closer to accomplishing this goal than they were when Ivanka and her father told prospective voters and working parents that they could be trusted to deliver on paid leave and thus deserved their votes.

“My father’s policy will give paid leave to mothers whose employers are among the almost 90 percent of U.S. business that currently do not offer this benefit,” Ivanka Trump said at a September 2016 rally.

Trump himself said he would “provide six weeks of paid maternity leave to any mother with a newborn child whose employer does not provide the benefit” and “get them to be okay, right? And we will be completely self-financing.” He said he would do that “by recapturing fraud and improper payments in the unemployment insurance program.”

His campaign website also promised “6 weeks of paid leave to new mothers before returning to work.” The campaign’s proposal did not include fathers or adoptive parents in their paid family leave proposal. Offering paid leave only to mothers carries economic costs to women, who already face a motherhood penalty in the workplace.

Since then, there have been paid family leave policies announced in budget documents that were subsequently ignored by the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Ivanka Trump was there for the announcement of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) paid family leave bill in August, which would allow working parents to access some of their Social Security benefits early, to give them the facsimile of paid leave at the expense of the worker’s retirement.

That this campaign promise has seemingly died on the vine shouldn’t be too surprising, as Trump’s own businesses often fell far short of paid family leave for its own workers.

Ivanka Trump, who was an executive at the Trump Organization before joining her father’s administration, asserted that the company provided paid family leave to all of its workers. But that turned out not to be true — the company complied with the Family Medical Leave Act which requires employers to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, however it did not provide paid parental leave to employees across all its properties and hotels.

The United States is one of only nine countries in the United Nations that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for new mothers.

Some states have struck out on their own to pick up the slack, passing legislation that ensures the expansion of paid family leave coverage for their residents.

But working parents nationwide are still waiting for a solution to a crisis that impacts millions of new parents who need to work to support their families.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on December 7, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Koronowski is the Research Director for ThinkProgress. He grew up on the north shore of Massachusetts and graduated from Vassar College with dual degrees in psychology and political science, focusing on foreign policy and social persuasion. He earned his M.S. in energy policy and climate at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was the research director and rapid response manager at the Climate Reality Project. He has worked on Senate and presidential campaigns, predominantly doing political research and rapid response.


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Tax breaks for businesses led to state unemployment funds going broke

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Laura ClawsonOver the past four years, a whopping 36 states have had to borrow from the federal government to pay unemployment insurance benefits. Obviously a recession with high unemployment has a lot to do with that, but not as much as you might think. Tax breaks for businesses (PDF) are once again a hidden culprit for state budget problems.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that, recession or not, many states could have avoided borrowing for unemployment payments if they hadn’t spent a decade weakening their unemployment insurance trust funds by slashing employer contributions:

Between 1995 and 2005, 31 states reduced employer contribution rates by at least one?fifth (Henchman 2011, 16), causing the nation’s average employer contribution rate over the decade leading up to the Great Recession to fall to its lowest point in the program’s 75?year history.

As a result, going into the recession, state unemployment insurance funds were short of recommended minimum solvency standards by a combined $38 billion, and 30 of the 34 states not meeting that minimum standard ended up borrowing, combined with just six of 19 states that started the recession with adequate funds. Adequate unemployment insurance reserves could have reduced borrowing to 13 states borrowing $9 billion rather than what ended up happening, with 31 states borrowing $42 billion.

But while the funding shortfalls came from employers contributing less than at any point in the previous 75 years, it’s been jobless people who’ve gotten the blame and felt the pinch, with “At least ten states [passing] legislation to reduce the number of weeks of benefits available, severely restrict eligibility, or impose measures designed to discourage people from filing UI claims.” Taxpayers, too, are paying, since states have already paid $3 billion in interest and penalties on what they’ve borrowed for unemployment, with more to come.

Businesses paid less when the economy was decent (not even good for many of the years of contribution cuts). Then the bad economy hit unemployed people first when they lost their jobs, second when their benefits were cut despite ongoing high unemployment. Again and again we’re told that a bad economy is not the time to raise taxes on businesses or the wealthy—apparently it’s never the moment for that, always the moment to cut another hole in the safety net.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.


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Unemployed Workers Win Jobless Aid Extension

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Credit: Joe Kekeris
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Congress this morning extended for two months unemployment insurance (UI) for America’s jobless workers. Republicans in the House earlier this week had blocked the UI extenstion, but after suffering badly in opinion polling, they announced they’d join with 89 out of 100 senators from both political parties who’d already voted to renew unemployment aid for two months—with no cuts and no strings attached.

Media headlines throughout the week–including the conservative Wall Street Journal–and Republican stalwarts such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had decried House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) refusal to move the UI bill, which gives a lifeline to 2.8 million jobless Americans who otherwise would lose UI after Dec. 31.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka described the victory for jobless Americans as “not a hnndout or a free ride” but “a lifeline.”

In the fight to extend aid for the jobless, the 99 percent went on the offense against 1 percent politicians. And we won. And if working people keep it up, we’ll score more victories and build a better future. Not every time—two steps forward, one step back. But look around. People all across the country are saying our economy and our democracy are out of balance. And they’re winning the public debate.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on December 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell says ” I got my first union card while I worked my way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (we were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now).” With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blog under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.


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Fired in Real Time: On the Dole

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Image: Bob RosnerI woke up in the middle of the night physically shaking, frozen in fear about how I’d pay my bills. I had totally soaked through my sheets, so I had to climb out of my unintentional water bed.

Once I realized what was going on, I decided I would go online and do some research about Unemployment Insurance. Okay, I can hear what your thinking. Jeez, Mr. Workplace Writer, wasn’t that the first thing you would do after being let go?

Just because I write about the workplace, it doesn’t mean that I can be totally objective when confronting workplace challenges myself. Again, that’s the purpose of this blog, to give you an honest, and sometimes embarrassing, view of the process of getting knocked down at work and learning how to pick yourself back up.

I actually got excited about the idea of going to the unemployment office. As a workplace writer it would be interesting to stand in line with other people who’d been recently pummeled at work to compare notes.  Okay, that last sentence is a bit twisted, but please remember the source.

I learned something remarkable during my middle of the night tour of the Employment Security website. There really is no longer any such thing as the Unemployment Office. It’s all done electronically now.

In fact, it only took me about fifteen minutes to sort out how to file my entire claim. At 3 am.

For anyone who fears the embarrassment of a room full of down and outers and being grilled by some bureaucrat, well those days are now gone. It has been replaced by a series of drop down menus and helpful phone operators. Really, every issue that I’ve come up with so far has been responded to and addressed in a matter of ten minutes or less. They even have a system where you don’t have to stay on hold, they’ll call you back when it’s your turn to talk to someone.

Okay, that last paragraph sounds like I’m trying to get hired by them to do PR for the Unemployment Insurance folks. That was not my intention. But I do want you to know that this process should not inspire fear. It’s automated, easy and only minimally damaging to your ego.

I’ve also heard from people who’ve written to me through the years that they would never stoop so low to ask for unemployment insurance. This has always befuddled me. Unemployment Insurance isn’t charity, it is a fund that you paid into while you were gainfully employed.

It’s no different than buying a gift card at a store. You are paying the cost of the card only to cash it in at a later date. That’s how I’ve always seen Unemployment Insurance.

My a-ha: Unemployment Insurance rocks, spread the word.

Next Installment: Getting advice

*For more information about Unemployment Insurance visit this Workplace Fairness page on unemployment insurance:
http://www.workplacefairness.org/general-unemployment-info

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.org. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Voices From These Times: Employment Inferno

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kenneth_hagans-250x288The entrance is rather mundane. It has a dark red brick front with metal- framed, smoked-glass doors that lead me into its government offices. Such places are little talked about and, as direct providers of services to citizens, are funded even less. Now, I have arrived here at this place to turn another page of my life.

The hurt, pain, and embarrassment still sting like it happened yesterday. I step into the line to sign up for unemployment compensation. Although it’s been three weeks since I was called into the executive director’s office and given my separation papers, only now, with monthly bills due and no meaningful employment on the horizon, have I ventured into this place.

The line has not moved once, giving me ample time to review my surroundings. Every wall seems to be covered with full-color posters, pastel handbills, and stark black and white newspaper clippings. These signs are notices for cooks, clerks, dishwashers, and hotel staff. Other signs note retraining opportunities and the latest government regulations on what you must do and have for this dubious “benefit.” The drab gray cubicle partitions have frayed edges and dents in their metal corners. The lighting hangs from the ceiling from metal poles painted a cream color that does nothing to enhance the brightness in the room. It is a huge open space, filled with divided places and shattered lives, where no one gets the dignity of privacy to tell their story or learn if they even “qualify” for this benefit.

I fight the urge to walk out, ignoring the thought whispering in my mind that I can always come back tomorrow. Suddenly, the person in front of me speaks to the lady behind the counter: “My job didn’t last; I wasn’t fired…” She replies, “Use the phone system every two weeks to qualify…” The time starts to have a slow-motion feel to it. The smell of fear fills the air like stale cigarette smoke wafting up from the carpeting or long-discarded butts. This smell gets into your hair, clothes, and skin as you try to neutralize your awareness of the seriousness of your plight. But then the despair becomes apparent as you listen to the questions and reactions of those around you. It is in the faces of men and women who, like myself, have studied, worked, and lived sometimes hard lives for tens of years or more and now find themselves and their families subject to the whims of the market forces far beyond their daily lives.

I stare at the faces around me for answers. The dejection and pressure facing these unemployed people is palpable. The practiced indifference of the staff is a painful sight that you can read on any face of the personnel behind the counter. Day after day these state employees gamely try to placate and process hundreds or even thousands of honest, working Americans whom they can neither point to new, suitable employment (read as “make as much as the job you were laid off from”) nor offer appropriate compensation that will meet their families’ basic needs.

At a long desk I, along with five other applicants, struggle to complete the forms and answer questions to get the benefits. First, any part-time work is counted against the amount of unemployment money received. So, that extra job you were working nights to help make ends meet is now deducted from the 40% maximum of your previous full-time salary that you would have been eligible for as the rate of payment. Some men shake their heads in disbelief, knowing that they are already at the brink of financial meltdown.

Soon, a young woman comments about continuing to study to get her nursing assistant certification while she receives unemployment. “No,” the clerk quietly replies. “If you are attending school, then you are not available to work, and thus are not eligible for benefits.” The young woman gasps and says, “But I’m only six months from completing my courses. I have been working and going to school and…” “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry,” the clerk says firmly. The clerk looks sincere, but the young woman is becoming increasingly distraught. A gray- bearded man who almost looks homeless leans across the table and in a low voice says, “Look, that’s a self-reporting item. If you are in between classes now, you can answer no to get at least some benefits.” She pulls herself together a little, and I am reminded how people often have to help each other get through this process, learning the ins and outs of the bureaucratic rules. The government is not always there to assist you. It often gives an image of aid, only to prescribe a method and a box to live in that many of us could never fit into.

Lastly, you are asked if any potential employer offered you work and did you refuse. Of course, if you had refused, your benefits would be terminated. This is true no matter how unsuited the work or pay is to your life.

After completing the forms, getting copies of my documents, a phone number, and procedure to follow, I stumble to the door. Numb and carrying an armful of legal forms and papers to document my job search, the walk back to the car is a lonely one. The terrible reality is that the means to provide for your family are precariously hanging in the balance of apathetic state employees and a government increasingly unconcerned with those left behind by corporate mergers, downsizing, and the movement of manufacturing plants to places ranging from Mexico to Malaysia.

All you want is a decent job to support your family. Now you have to deal with the global economy. I head for home or the local bar. And I never want to come to the unemployment office again….

This piece, the first of an ongoing biweekly series, originally appeared in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by NWA. Find more stories and voices at NWA’s blog.

About The Author:Kenneth Hagans is formerly the business manager at Hales Franciscan High School, a parochial all boys school on the South Side of Chicago. Hagans, who completed his undergraduate studies at the Illinois Institute for Technology, writes to balance his analytical world of numbers and give voice to his life’s experiences. Currently unemployed, Hagans is active in several community groups including A Just Harvest, formally known as The Good News Community Kitchen.


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