Holes in the Unemployment Safety Net

June 30, 2016

Picking up where I left off on the instability that plagues so many low-wage workers and their families. The reasons I’ve cited are all rooted in those low wages — and at times, even lower pay because so few of these workers have any paid sick or family leave benefit.

Which brings us to another wage-related source of instability. Households in the bottom fifth of the income scale have, on average, only enough money in the bank to cover nine days’ worth of expenses, the Pew Charitable Trusts report. What then if the breadwinners lose their jobs?

Unemployment insurance is supposed to serve as a safety net for them, as well as other workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own — and would work at another, if they could find it.

But only about one in four of all jobless workers received any UI benefits last year — a record low, the National Employment Law Project reports. Various reasons for this, including the following.

Not Enough for Long Enough

All states have UI programs, as you probably know. All provide some workers some portion of their lost wages if, as I said, they lose their jobs through no fault of their own, according to how states choose to define that, and if they actively search for work, also a variable definition.

Most states provide eligible workers with 26 weeks of benefits. Nine, however, cut back the weeks they cover — a response to drains on their under-funded UI trust funds during the Great Recession.

So workers in Florida and North Carolina, for example, may receive benefits for as few as 12 weeks. Those in three other states will definitely receive them for no more than 20.

Most of the nine, as well as some other states replace, on average, very small portions of lost wages — only about a third in North Carolina and less in five of the other cutback states.

So we’ve got two sources of financial instability here — as we do for many workers and their families even in states that haven’t whittled down their UI programs. But at least these workers receive something for awhile.

Not Enough Earned

Virtually all states require that workers have earned a certain amount during a so-called base period — generally the last four three-month periods before the one when they lost their job.

Some set a flat minimum for the base period. Others set a minimum for the quarter the worker got paid the most and then apply a formula to come up with a minimum for all four. Some use other formulas, e.g., one based on the average wage in the state.

Even more complexity and variety than I’ve indicated here. The bottom line is that the bottom lines states draw will disqualify some variable number of workers because they didn’t earn enough — most likely those who worked only some of the time and for low wages when they did.

Involuntary “Voluntary” Job Losses

Workers generally can’t get UI benefits if they quit. A few iffy exceptions, plus some that aren’t. But the latter don’t apply to workers in all states, even though the Recovery Act offered all incentives to adopt as many as three for “compelling family reasons” — domestic violence, for example, or to follow a spouse who’s leaving the area.

Yet workers may feel they’ve no choice but to quit when constantly shifting schedules prove too difficult to manage — because of childcare needs, for example.

They may have no UI benefits to fall back on, however, especially if they knew they couldn’t count on regular hours when they took the job, as CLASP and NELP report.

They may also wind up with no benefits if they didn’t try to continue working after a job or scheduling change — or if they did for more than a very short time. A Catch 22 if ever there was one.

Workers who get their jobs through temporary agencies may face a different barrier — basically, the agency’s claim that they quit because they didn’t immediately call in when the assignment they had ended. This apparently even if they didn’t know they had to.

Other Workers on Their Own

All states generally limit UI benefits to jobless workers who are available for work. Twenty-one deny them to all workers who can’t immediately accept a full-time job, even if they’d worked only part-time.

People who work for themselves can’t get UI benefits. This may seem altogether reasonable. But those classified as self-employed include independent contractors.

Clearly more of them than there used to be, though we don’t have a good read on how many, as the latest contingent worker report from the Government Accountability Office shows.

What we do know is that some workers classified as independent contractors are independent only of employer-sponsored benefits and major legal protections. An old problem that’s gotten renewed attention with the rise of the so-called gig economy.

The Department of Labor, IRS and some state agencies have ramped up efforts to end misclassification. But truly independent contractors and other contingent workers, e.g., day laborers, will have no income to tide them over when they’re out of work.

The Center for American Progress and two other progressive research and advocacy organizations recommend a short-term jobseekers allowance for these and other workers who’d remain ineligible for UI benefits, despite other recommended reforms.

They’d get about $170 a week for up to 16 weeks. Hardly a safety net, though better than nothing.

The allowance is just one small (in both senses of the word) piece of the CAP et al. agenda, which takes on a variety of flaws in the system — some I’ve flagged and many that I haven’t. Most, if not all the proposed reforms would require federal legislation.

Don’t suppose I need to restate the obvious.


Thankful I Live in DC

November 25, 2015

Like many of you, I suppose, I try to take some time before Thanksgiving Day to focus on what I have to be thankful for. In my case, a lot, even on this Thanksgiving, when I’ll have no one ministering to the turkey — my late husband Jesse’s traditional (and favorite) holiday task.

One thing I’m thankful for and recur to often as I browse policies that affect low-income people is the fact that I live in the District of Columbia.

As followers know, I gripe about policy choices our mayors and the DC Council make. Sometimes more than gripe.

I’m constantly reminded, however, of how relatively progressive the major choices generally are — and of how even current debates occur within a relatively progressive framework. A few examples.

Jobless Workers

The Council seems poised to increase unemployment insurance benefits for at least some jobless workers, as well as to enable some to get them for longer

A bill cosponsored by a majority of members would, among other things, increase the maximum weekly benefit — long stuck at $359 — to $430 and then adjust it annually so that it didn’t again lose purchasing power.

It would also enable recipients to work part time without losing as much of their benefits as they do now — another increase of sorts.

Meanwhile, nine states have cut UI benefits by reducing the maximum time jobless workers can receive them to fewer than the customary 26 weeks. Two states will now cut the lifeline at 12 weeks when their unemployment rates drop to 5-5.5%.

And five states have chosen not to ask for waivers of the highly-restrictive SNAP (food stamp program) eligibility maximum for able-bodied workers without dependents. One of them — Kansas — is among the states that cut eligibility weeks for UI benefits.

So ABAWDs who are jobless for as little as 16 weeks will have neither cash income nor a cash equivalent to feed themselves — unless they can get into a job training program.

Unlikely, since states don’t have to provide any training slots for them. And most don’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again reported.

The District has not only preserved the waiver it’s entitled to. It’s done other things to extend SNAP benefits to as many residents as possible — and to make them as sufficient as seems possible, even to the extent of committing local funds to boost the minimal minimum.

Affordable Health Care

The District swiftly embraced the opportunities in the Affordable Care Act — both to expand its Medicaid program and to establish an online marketplace so that residents with incomes above the new maximum could purchase health insurance, in many cases subsidized.

And it promoted enrollment in a variety of ways — through advertising, partnerships with the local soccer team and largest drug store chain and funding for 35 divers organizations to support trained “assisters,” who help residents understand the ACA and navigate their way to a sign-up.

At the same time, it retained the locally-funded Healthcare Alliance so that low-income residents barred from Medicaid and the exchange — mainly undocumented immigrants — could get affordable health care too.

As a result, the District’s already low uninsured rate dropped to 5.3% last year — bested only by Massachusetts, which provided the model for the ACA.

Meanwhile, 20 states still refused to expand their Medicaid programs. And 13 of them passed laws to hobble the federally-funded navigators — one of the two types of “assisters” the District provides.

We see the results in the same Census health insurance report I linked to above. Highest uninsured rates in the non-expansion states — led by Texas, with a rate well over three times the District’s.

Not surprisingly, when Texas, among others, excludes all childless adults from its Medicaid program and covers only parents with incomes no greater than 15% of the federal poverty line — about $3,013 for a parent with two kids.

Family Planning Rights

The District would — if it could — use its own tax revenues to ensure that low-income women who live here can choose to end a pregnancy when they believe that’s best, a right they supposedly have under the Constitution.

The District can’t because Congress exercised its prerogative to meddle in the local budget in ways it can’t — and wouldn’t dare to — if the District were a state like any other.

Meanwhile, 24 states have cleverly (they think) found a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which made the Constitutional right operative.

They’re using their taxpayer dollars to defend laws that effectively deny the right by requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet wholly unnecessary standards — all very costly and at least two sometimes absolutely impossible to comply with.

Texas will defend its unusually expansive rules before the Supreme Court, using tax dollars women have perforce contributed. The governor makes no bones about the intent of the rules.

“The ideal world, ” he says, “is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible.” So much for the alleged concern for women’s health and safety.

Well-off women will, of course, still have abortions. They’ll travel to communities with clinics that have managed to meet the standards — or to states that haven’t enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, so-called to produce the appropriate acronym, i.e., TRAP.

They’ll perhaps have abortions in hospitals, as well-off women with compassionate doctors sometimes did before Roe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate women have already tried to-it-yourself abortions — at genuine risk to their health and safety. Who knows how many more have borne children they didn’t want and can’t care for? How many have instead done away with themselves?

Got my juices flowing here, when I should be thinking about turkey juices. But I am truly thankful that I’ve settled in the District. And I’m thankful for Jesse, without whom I probably wouldn’t have. But that’s another story.

 


“Endless Weeks of False Hope and Promises,” As Jobless Workers Grow Desperate Without Unemployment Benefits

June 18, 2014

A fellow District of Columbia resident writes, “Where to start … the abrupt termination of emergency benefits, or the endless weeks of false hope and promises.

“I have no money to get to interviews…. I also have no money for phone, no money to even keep up my personal hygiene. For over 11 years, I was steadily employed at $40K-$55K, and now I’m soon to be homeless.”

This is one of well over 2,000 stories that struggling jobless workers have shared with the Center for Effective Government.

They speak of selling belongings, including a wedding ring. They speak of living without hot water, having electricity, phone service and/or internet connections cut off — of actually becoming homeless.

And they speak of ongoing, frustrating efforts to find employment — any job at all, some say, though like my fellow District resident, many used to earn a comfortable living.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner has run the clock out on the stop-gap bill to renew Emergency Unemployment Compensation that the Senate passed in early April.

The bill covered five months of EUC benefits, back-dated to when they expired at the end of last year. So the benefits it provided would have ended more than three weeks ago.

Supporters had hoped that the bill would buy time for negotiations on a further extension. Surely justified. Notwithstanding newsworthy job growth, there are still nearly 3.4 million people who’ve been job-seeking for more than 27 weeks.

Only two state unemployment insurance programs provide benefits for this long — and none for much longer.

So at this point, more than 3 million have lost their unemployment benefits since EUC expired, as the counter House Ways and Means Democrats have posted. Look at the numbers roll — about one more worker cut off every 8 seconds, 72,000 or so a week.

Well, I don’t suppose I need to convince you of the mounting crisis — not only for jobless workers themselves, but for their families.

The question is, what will convince Speaker Boehner to let the House vote on an EUC bill? Not apparently some bipartisan job-creating measures to go with it, since he shrugged off the Secretary of Labor’s invitation to discuss what those might be.

The campaign I wrote about earlier hasn’t let up. We’ve been tweeting House Republicans weekly, urging them to tell their leader it’s time — past time actually — for a vote.

Not only the Center for Effective Government, but House Ways and Means Democrats have been collecting stories — many begging Congress for help.

Last Wednesday marked a new phase in the campaign — the first of what will be seven weekly events on the grassy triangle in front of the House side of the Capitol.

Witness Wednesdays they’re called because they center on readings of stories collected — all participants bearing witness to the suffering of our fellow Americans, who, as one of them says, are “swimming as hard as … [they] can, yet … still drowning.”

I joined the crowd for the first event. It was a heart-wrenching — and at the same time, rousing — experience, as you can see.

Thankfully, the organizers and the many other groups supporting the cause aren’t counting on touching Boehner’s heart — or if you prefer, pricking his conscience. Nor, I think, are they counting on pressure from his colleagues to get a standalone bill on the floor.

We perhaps see a glimpse of the Democrats’ strategy in a recent donnybrook in the Senate. Senator Jack Reed, who’d partnered with Senator Dean Heller to negotiate the five-month EUC bill, planned to attach a year-long renewal to the bill extending expiring tax breaks.

Republicans blocked a substantive vote on the bill because House Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t allow them to add amendments.

But the tax extender bill is one of those so-called must-pass pieces of legislation. And there are others — a bill of some sort to avert a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year, for example, and another to keep funds flowing to road and public transit projects.

So we may see an EUC extension after all. Senators Reed and Heller are reportedly working on a new bill — this time, prospective only. No compensation for benefits already lost, though that might avert some further emergencies.

The challenge again is to find an offset that would satisfy most Democrats and enough Republicans to get the bill — or amendment — passed.

Because we know that Senate Republicans, as well as their House counterparts, will insist the benefits be fully paid for though they’re willing enough to extend tax breaks with no offset whatever.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking — and the number of jobless workers with no source of cash income rising. Members of Congress will go home in about six weeks and stay there until after Labor Day.

So even if EUC is ultimately resurrected, jobless workers who’ve already said they’re facing foreclosure or eviction may be homeless. And who knows how many more will find their job searches frustrated because they can’t afford gas or public transportation to get to interviews?

This is all so pathetically unnecessary. No wonder that two-thirds of American voters have a higher opinion of lice than of Congress.


Next Round in Battle to Renew Long-Term Unemployment Benefits

March 10, 2014

Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a sharp increase in the number of long-term jobless workers — 203,000 more who’d been unemployed and actively looking than in January.

This brought the average number of weeks jobless workers had been looking up to 37.1 — about 11 weeks more than most state unemployment insurance programs cover.

At least two million jobless workers have no UI benefits now, but would if Congress renewed Emergency Unemployment Compensation — and back-dated it to the end of December, when the program expired.

As I’m sure you know, Senate Democrats have been trying to pass an EUC extension since mid-December. Republicans haven’t delivered the five votes needed for the Senate to vote on the extension itself.

The ostensible hang-up is the offset, i.e., the source or sources of funds that would keep the extension from adding to the near-term deficit. But some of the potentially persuadable Republicans have further complicated matters by insisting on amendments to reform UI.

And as if that weren’t enough, they wanted the package to include a repeal of the temporary, modified cost-of-living adjustment for military pensions that was part of the December budget deal.

Well, the Senate took care of the repeal in mid-February, using a pay-for Republicans wouldn’t accept for the EUC extension. Now it’s going back to EUC again.

Majority Leader Harry Reid is calling for a six-month extension — five months shorter than the paid-for version he’d earlier proposed. He’d use savings already achieved in the new Farm Bill as the offset. Politico reports the cost at about $12 billion. That would leave about $11 billion for deficit reduction.

Seven Republicans have countered with a five-month extension. They’ve got an altogether different pay-for. And they fold in program “improvements,” including one that has little or nothing to do with unemployment compensation.

Too much to cram into one post. So I’ll deal with the pay-for here. As you’ll see, the Gang of Seven seems to have moved toward the Democratic majority. This, alas, is not an altogether good thing.

The pay-for has three parts. The first would extend so-called pension smoothing provisions that Congress earlier used to help pay for the highway bill.

Basically, pension smoothing allows employers to temporarily reduce their contributions to employee pension plans. This raises revenues for awhile because the contributions are tax-deductible.

But it then loses revenues because employers have to make up what they didn’t contribute earlier. The losses, however, fall outside the 10-year period used to estimate what federal laws will cost.

In short, it’s what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls a “timing gimmick.” It also, as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says, raises the risk that pension funds will need a bailout, thus further increasing federal costs.

Senate Republicans shot down pension smoothing when Reid tried to use it for a three-month EUC extension — or at any rate, they blocked the bill, claiming (rightly) that he limited their chances to amend it.

A second part of the pay-for is a modified version of an amendment Senator Rob Portman wanted to offer. In its new iteration, severely disabled workers who receive UI benefits would lose the same amount from their SSDI (Supplemental Security Disability Insurance) benefits.

This too was a pay-for Reid earlier offered — and borrowed from the President’s proposed budget. But it still “uniquely burdens” disabled workers, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzig says.

It also undermines the work incentive in SSDI. And it establishes a terrible precedent of raiding Social Security to fund other benefits programs, as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities warned several months ago.

The last part of the pay-for extends customs users fees through 2024. These are charges imposed for certain activities of the U.S. Customs Service, e.g., clearing merchandise for import.

So for better and worse, the Gang of Seven seems to have come round to a pay-for the Democratic majority could accept. But, as I said, it’s paired with some problematic “reforms” to the EUC program.

Politico reports that Reid may take another stab at passing an EUC bill this week. How far he’ll move to pick up the Republican votes he needs remains to be seen.

How far he should move is a daunting question.