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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW DO WORKERS APPLY FOR EXTENDED UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE?

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

IS CONGRESS GOING TO EXTEND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS INTO 2021?

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

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

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

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


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Unemployment Systems Floundering Without Worker-Centered Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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U.S. workers filed 881K claims for jobless benefits last week

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More than 880,000 people filed new applications for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday.

The numbers are not directly comparable to previous weeks because of a change the Labor Department made in how it calculates the claims, which are seasonally adjusted. The number appears lower than the previous week’s 1 million claims, but that reflects a change in the Labor Department’s methodology rather than a strengthening of the U.S. labor market, economists say.

On an unadjusted basis, unemployment claims under state programs rose 0.9 percent from the previous week.

An additional 760,000 laid-off workers filed for jobless aid under the new pandemic unemployment assistance program, created for those not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits like the self-employed and gig workers. That also marks a rise from the previous week’s 607,806 claims under that program.

Overall claims remain at historic highs. In total, more than 29.2 million workers are receiving unemployment insurance benefits, the Labor Department said, an increase from the prior week’s 27 million.

Why the change? The Labor Department regularly reports seasonally adjusted data, which accounts for expected changes in the labor market, such as when a large number of temporary retail employees get laid off after the holidays.

But economists say that methodology had been causing major distortions to the data during this recession, given how many workers were filing for unemployment due to unexpected coronavirus shutdowns. Experts welcome the change, which they say should make the numbers more accurate in the future, but they warn against trying to compare this week’s seasonally adjusted data to weeks prior.

Regardless of the change in calculations, non-seasonally adjusted data shows overall claims rose last week to 833,352 from 825,761 the week before.

What’s next: The Labor Department will report jobs numbers for the month of August on Friday. The July report showed an overall unemployment rate of 10.2 percent, and while most economists expect that number to fall slightly in August, many expect the pace of job growth will slow down.

This article originally appeared at Politico on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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


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South Florida AFL-CIO Rallies for Unemployment Insurance

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of those stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The South Florida AFL-CIO, led by President Jeffrey Mitchell (TWU), partnered with Rise Up Florida! to protest and rally on Friday at Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. Union members and our allies called on President Trump and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to pass the HEROES Act and extend enhanced unemployment insurance. The central labor council purchased two giant rats, one for Rubio and one for Scott, and a Trump inflatable to be part of the event. “Without that money, we cannot continue with our life,” Roy James, a member of UNITE HERE who lost his job at the Miami International Airport in March, told NBC 6 South Florida. “Even with $1,000, I cannot pay my bills because even my rent is $1,500.” After the rally at Trump’s resort, a caravan of union members traveled to the senators’ Miami offices.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on August 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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How the U.S. economic response could change as people go back to work

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Despite the drop in the unemployment rate in May, many economists feel further aid is needed.

As Congress debates whether to allocate further relief to shore up the U.S. economy and get workers back on their feet, the unemployment rate has suddenly and unexpectedly fallen.

Here’s a look at how the new numbers are shaping the debate over how the government can keep the turnaround going.

Unemployment insurance

Congress moved quickly to strengthen unemployment benefits in March, providing an extra $600 per week and vastly expanding who is eligible for aid. That boost in benefits is set to expire at the end of July, though Democrats are advocating to extend it at least through the end of the year.

Republicans have raised concerns that the enhanced unemployment benefits could discourage people from returning to work, because in some cases they are making more than their original wages. Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and outside adviser to President Donald Trump, said Friday that the topline number of jobs being created could have been higher for May if the unemployment sweetener were not in place.

“We need to go back to the old unemployment insurance system as quickly as possible now,” Moore said.

But others say the higher level of aid is bolstering consumer confidence and keeping demand closer to normal levels as businesses begin to reopen.

“Every dollar in unemployment insurance churns in the community, keeping it afloat in recessions,” Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, wrote on Twitter. “Gutting access to benefits doesn’t just hurt individual workers, it hurts communities.”

Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at Upwork, a platform that connects businesses with freelancers, said Congress could consider a compromise by extending the unemployment insurance booster but combining it with something akin to a “return to work” benefit — meaning workers have access to aid both if they remain unemployed and if they head back to the office.

“The goals are to make sure we’re not wreaking havoc upon the 20 million people who are still out of work, and giving them support without holding them back from going back to work when they can,” Ozimek said. “I think there’s a balanced approach here that continues to make unemployment generous but also gives people money when they go back to work.”

While the unemployment rate for adult women, adult men, white workers and Hispanic workers dropped from April to May, it rose slightly for black workers to 16.8 percent, the Labor Department reported. That could fuel a push from Democrats and labor leaders to extend the program, as they have argued in recent days that allowing it to expire on July 31 would hit black communities acutely, particularly as protests over racial inequality spread across the country.

“It needs to be passed quickly,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said during a press call Wednesday. “People of color have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. So if we allow the unemployment extension to lapse, it hurts them, and it hurts them bad.”

Paycheck Protection Program

The PPP has doled out more than $510 billion in government-backed loans to support small businesses and keep workers on payrolls. And economists appeared relatively unified in crediting the program for some of the positive aspects of Friday’s report.

“The largest gains were in sectors that appear to be beneficiaries of both reopening across an increasing number of states, but also potentially some positive effect from PPP loans bringing small business workers back into employment,” Morgan Stanley economists wrote in a research note Friday.

Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate, said the effort was “no doubt having some impact” but warned that the aid “is not unlike a performance-enhancing drug for the economy, and the benefits of that cannot last forever.”

Hamrick said it will take time to see how sustainable the federal program to supplement small business’ income will be. “Part of the worry is that that could have an unintended negative consequence down the road” he said, if the positive job growth seen in May “did turn out to be essentially a federally induced sugar high.”

State and local government impact

The largest share of new job losses recorded in the May jobs report were in government, which has now shed 1.5 million positions in two months. That underscores what some economists and lawmakers say is an urgent need to provide funding to states, which have seen a sharp drop in tax revenue amid the coronavirus shutdowns and are laying off public workers as a result.

Providing aid to states is “a really important component of the next phase of the relief,” Ozimek said. “It’s going to be really hard to have a V-shaped recovery if the recovery doesn’t extend to state and local employment.”

The House Democrats’ Heroes Act — a fifth phase of aid that the House has passed but the Senate has yet to take up — would carve out at least $915 billion in aid to state and local governments. Proponents say that doing so would particularly help minorities, who make up a significant proportion of the workforce at the local level.

Moore rejected the idea that Congress should provide any such aid, saying that doing so would enable states to stay shut down.

“The best thing for these states to do is open their economies,” he said, “so they can get the tax revenues and so they can hire back the workers that they might need.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

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.


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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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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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