ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS NEEDED BY WORKERS – AND BUSINESSES

The enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the federal government expired this week and whether Congress will extend them is unknown. The federal program added $600 per week to the unemployment benefits provided by the states, which vary substantially from Mississippi’s $235 per week to Massachusetts’s $795. The amount received typically depends on how much a worker was earning and, in some states, the amount can increase based on the number of dependents a worker has.

Republicans are claiming that the added $600 per week serves as a disincentive for people to return to work and therefore this program should not be continued. It is possible that a few people would choose to continue to collect the enhanced unemployment benefit and not go back to work, but this number and its impact would be negligible, especially when compared to the positive effects of continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit.

The assertion that large numbers of workers wouldn’t go back to work is a myth with racist overtones as its premise is that many of “those people” are lazy and happy to collect welfare or other public benefits rather than work. [1]

Here are five reasons that make the case for continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit and that rebut the argument that doing so would mean workers wouldn’t return to work.

First, roughly 24.5 million Americans are unemployed, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and need financial assistance. Many of these workers simply cannot support their families on the unemployment benefit amounts provided by their states and a significant number of these families would fall into poverty without the enhanced benefit.

Second, given that consumer spending is roughly two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S., the enhanced unemployment benefit means people have money to spend, which keeps our economy and businesses going. Putting this money directly into workers’ pockets is one of the most effective ways to counter the economic slowdown of the pandemic. If all 24.5 million people without jobs were collecting the $600 per week federal supplement, that would be $14.7 billion that workers would be receiving. The great majority of that would be spent immediately on living expenses. That’s $14.7 billion a week that would not be spent in the U.S. economy if these benefits stop. It is estimated that the loss of this spending would result in the loss of 5.1 million jobs. [2]

Third, Americans were returning to work in record numbers and the unemployment rate was falling in May and June even though the enhanced unemployment benefit was being paid. Clearly, people want to work even if their unemployment benefit is greater than what they would get paid to work, given that for two-thirds of those who qualify for unemployment benefits the enhanced benefit is greater than what they were paid at work. (The fact that the enhanced unemployment benefit is more than they earned is a sad commentary on our low minimum wage and the low wages paid by many employers.) Workers know that the unemployment benefit is temporary and that they can lose the benefit if they aren’t actively looking for work, so if a job is available, the great majority of them will take it. [3]

Fourth, the still high unemployment rate (over 11% at the end of June) reflects the lack of available jobs. Workers can’t be incentivized by reduced benefits to take jobs that don’t exist. Moreover, the biggest disincentive to returning to work is the danger of becoming infected with the coronavirus, which is killing over 1,000 Americans a day.

Fifth, cutting unemployment benefits, when paid sick leave is far from universal, increases the risk that workers will go back to work even if they don’t feel well or have been exposed to the coronavirus because they would need the income from work if they aren’t getting the enhanced unemployment benefit. This obviously increases the risk they will spread the coronavirus to co-workers, customers, and others they come in contact with at work or in getting to and from work. This risk is exacerbated by the difficulty of getting a test for COVID-19 and the lack of quick availability of test results.

For all these reasons, not to mention a basic sense of fairness and humane decency, the $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit from the federal government should be continued. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and ask them to support the continuation of this emergency unemployment benefit. Please do this NOW as this decision may well be made this week as part of the pandemic relief bill currently moving through Congress.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

 

[1]      Editorial, 7/30/20, “No, unemployment benefits do not discourage work,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Sainato, M., 7/13/20, “Millions of U.S. workers still unemployed as enhanced benefits set to expire,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/millions-workers-still-unemployed-as-benefits-expire/)

[3]      Editorial, 7/30/20, see above

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