Many lessons in unemployment benefits meltdown

Pearl River     Losing your job through layoffs or even temporarily in a furlough is a terrible thing.  For years, state unemployment divisions, under the brutal thumbs of corporate dominated conservative legislatures and governors have seen it as their jobs to make it as hard as possible to access the benefits, despite the fact that it is unemployment insurance and workers along with their employers are paying the premiums.  In a classic case of politically “blaming the victim,” in many states the operating premise has been that an unemployed worker is ripping the system until they prove otherwise.  Now in the pandemic depression, we are all, especially those same unemployed workers, reaping the bitter harvest of these tight-fisted, draconian policies and ideological politics.

States are scrambling as more than 25 million workers have applied for benefits and that likely obscures the number who are still stuck in the system, unemployed, but in an invisible queue trying to break through the bureaucracy and the technology.  The Washington Post reports that economists at the DC-based Economic Policy Institute “…found that for every 10 people who successfully applied for unemployment benefits during the crisis … another three or four couldn’t get through the overloaded system, and two more didn’t even apply because the system is too difficult.”  Cutting through the math, the EPI figures seem to indicate that real unemployment might be 50% higher, if all of those that tried to scale the walls had been able to get inside the fort.  Had they been successful, there would be more than 37 million now receiving unemployment benefits.  And, by all indications, the vast army of the unemployed is still swelling with more draftees!

The states are stumbling over their own anti-worker restrictions.  Reportedly, Kentucky’s website tells people when they are rejected that they should ignore that.  Many states, Louisiana for an example, but they are legion, continue to indicate a required job search despite a headline on its website above the requirement saying that job searches have been suspended during the pandemic.  Waiting periods have been canceled, but continue in bold face type on many state websites.  The parsimonious twenty-six or less weeks of eligible benefits has also been blown to smithereens.  The CARES Act allowed access to unemployment benefits for self-employed and gig workers, despite the fact that no contributions had been made by either the workers or their employers, but to date only twenty-one states have successfully implemented the program now weeks after the crisis has become the lives we live.  Is it any wonder that so many people may have given up on the system?

Just as a reminder again, ignoring this special period, for most workers this is insurance they paid for, not some kind of welfare program that governors, legislators, or taxpayers provided out of any goodness in their hearts.  Companies want the benefits to be minimal and the premiums to be thin to control workers along with their own share of the costs.  A huge lesson that politicians need to taught again is that unemployment benefits are the workers’ rainy-day fund when their jobs go south or are interrupted.  Making the benefits inaccessible means keeping workers from money that they entrusted to the government essentially as savings for just such a problem.  Politicians who see it as their job to prevent workers from accessing their own money should find themselves on the permanent unemployment line.


Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International

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