As Congress works its way towards the third and most important stimulus bill, a central tenet of that legislation must be this: Strong unemployment benefit provisions are vital for ensuring the economic survival of millions of working people who suddenly have no paychecks.
Despite all the airtime that $1000/$2000 cash payments are getting, Unemployment Insurance (UI) is a much more robust program that provides more than a token payment. A 26-week payment of UC benefits in Pennsylvania ranges from a low of $1,768 to a high of $14,898. And with the recession pounding down on us, these claims should be doubled or tripled by extensions, as has been the case in prior recessions.
Here are a few principles for the UI provisions of the stimulus bill that must be met to protect America’s workforce.
- Minimum state UI program eligibility standards must be set. Many states vitiated their UI program eligibility criteria after trust funds ran dry in the last recession. And even in a state like Pennsylvania where our UI program remains better than average, we have never utilized an “alternative base period,” which would count more recent wages for determining labor force connection and significantly boost eligibility. These failings must be addressed NOW by federal standards.
- Eligibility must be expanded to large categories of workers who are outside the UI system. These workers and their families are in tremendous danger at this moment, with no safety net and few prospects of work, no matter how hard they might be prepared to look for it. UI does not currently cover groups including:
- “Gig economy” workers;
- Independent contractors, whether properly or improperly characterized as such;
- Small business owners, like the child care providers that I spoke to about UC earlier this week, who were concerned about their laid off employees but have no coverage themselves.
We need a national Disaster Unemployment Assistance program that will ensure that these unemployed workers would no longer be left without a safety net.
- More administrative funds must be directed to the state UI programs. During the first four days of the week of March 16th, the Pennsylvania UI system received 250,000 new claims. Pennsylvania’s agency and those of other states have done a heroic job expanding administration of their programs from “zero to 60” under extremely trying circumstances, at the same time that they ramp up remote work while closing their call centers where the work was being done. Rather than complaining about the inevitable breakdowns that some states suffered, Congressional members should fully fund their staffing and technological upgrade needs so they can adequately and quickly administer and pay these claims.
- Make these changes at least for the long-term. Permanent changes that are sorely needed by the UI system would be best. But at the least, these changes should be implemented for at least the next three years, to eliminate the arm wrestling that would ensue from the need to repeatedly reauthorize them. This is also a time to provide certainty for workers and small businesses so that they know they will be supported through this national crisis and its consequences.
Sadly, the current public health and economic crisis has highlighted the gaping holes in our safety net and the public policy choices that have brought us to this point. Congress must act RIGHT NOW to shore up the UI system. Now is the time to avoid economic disaster for the nation’s unemployed families, as well as providing a well-documented economic stimulus for our communities.
Written by Sharon M. Dietrich, CLS Litigation Director