Unemployment benefit amounts must be high enough to sustain workers in this crisis

Unemployment insurance (UI) is a program designed to keep workers connected to the workforce. It is an earned benefit that allows workers to receive income while they are looking for a job. Any notion that workers will not return to work when it is safe to do so ignores not only evidence but also the intention of the unemployment insurance system.

UI benefits have always been a critical, yet insufficient wage replacement. The weekly benefit in states with the best benefits generally covers around 50 percent of a worker’s lost wages, allowing for some income during instances of unemployment, while remaining woefully inadequate to cover all expenses. This is particularly true if unemployed people worked in jobs that paid minimum or low wages.

Making ends meet when making 100 percent wages is hard enough for underpaid workers, never mind trying to do so making only – or less than – half of that. That is why the new Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program, which temporarily provides an additional $600 weekly to qualified unemployed workers (on top of their regular state unemployment benefits) is so important to workers – and to our ability to counter this economic downturn.

We should be asking ourselves why underpaid workers – who will hopefully be making closer to or above their regular wages, allowing for greater economic stability in these uncertain times – are being expected to labor for too little money in the first place. Wages have stagnated for decades. People cannot live on the wages they are making, much less on an unemployment benefit that is a fraction of that.

Right now, our concern should be focused on making sure that workers are able to maintain an adequate income. This benefit boost is necessary in part because states have lowered their unemployment insurance benefit levels to the point where they cannot effectively provide countercyclical stabilization during a recession.

As NELP has reported repeatedly, the real problem is that too many workers who qualify for benefits cannot access them. As we have seen across the country, filing for unemployment insurance can be arduous.

When we see workers standing in line for paper applications for unemployment insurance, workers spending hours on hold while trying to apply over the phone, or the crashing of computer systems, we should focus on making sure everyone who lost work can get their benefit instead of worrying about the extremely unlikely scenario that underpaid workers will quit to get unemployment benefits.

There are more than a few reasons to call this idea into question. First, of all, under every state unemployment law in the country, a person who quits work in order to receive an unemployment check will be found ineligible for benefits. There are some situations (mostly adverse changes in wages, hours, and working conditions) that can be regarded as good cause to leave a job; the prospect of a higher unemployment benefit is not one of them.

Second, several guidance letters issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration have made it clear that quitting work to receive unemployment benefits can be fraud – workers know this because the few stories about fraud are used by anti-worker, anti-UI proponents to represent all workers and hurt a system that can support all. Workers are informed before applying that they cannot claim benefits for which they do not qualify and if they do, they will need to pay them back, and may even face steep financial penalties.

Moreover, it’s short-sighted to overlook how critical it is for workers to maintain their connection to a job right now. For so many people, there is more to a job than the paycheck. Workers can share a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. They can find personal meaning in their jobs. If nothing else, work can provide a sense of stability for individuals and families.

In these highly uncertain times, the reassurance of continued work is something that more and more workers can no longer count on. It may be the source of health care benefits, retirement security, and possibly equity in the company. Workers are also well aware of how resume gaps can harm long-term job prospects, even in this era.

Policymakers need to learn the lesson of the last recession, which many individuals,  families and communities,  never recovered from. The response to the last recession did not inject enough money and was not sustained enough to ensure that communities actually recovered.

The families and communities that were most harmed in the last recession, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately people of color and women – who already were dealing with generational racial wealth gaps and gender wage gaps. Today, we are in an economic crisis with workers in a worse place economically than before. Communities cannot afford for policymakers to aim low in terms of emergency aid.

It is concerning that states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee are “re-opening” their economies and encouraging workers to go back to work. If shutting off access to unemployment insurance is any motivator behind this decision, it is sure to backfire. As public health officials warn, the more people who are forced to go back to work, the greater the risk to their health and safety and the cascading effects.

As we see shockingly disproportionate numbers of Black people dying, we know that racism and classism are not only the root cause of economic abandonment but also encapsulate our entire response in this moment.

More workers getting sick and overwhelming the health care system will prolong the duration of the pandemic and the number of people being infected, while also exacerbating economic problems in the future. The rush to reopen will ironically lengthen the duration of the crisis and worsen long-term economic conditions – particularly for underpaid workers of color and women of color.

Any argument being made that is not focused on ensuring all workers have the income needed to survive in this moment is ignoring a very important lesson: providing people with economic security is the answer to economic stability in good times, and to recovery after times of crisis. After all, the economy doesn’t exist without workers.

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