Even if Congress soon unites on a new stimulus package – as is now to be expected after months of failed negotiations – the time has already run out and millions of unemployed are likely to be harmed. It turns out that governance through extreme procrastination is not an ideal approach.
After months of will-them-or-not-them dance that leaves workers, corporations, and much of the economy in the air, lawmakers have yet another potential deal: a $ 748 billion proposal to end the Boost economy as Covid -19 pandemic rages on. While it may have some flaws – Democrats cut state and local government aids off the main bill in exchange for Republicans ditching corporate liability protection – it's not the worst business in the world, and there are new payments for the unemployed.
But there is a hiccup: even if a law is passed, millions of workers will likely face a delay in receiving these payments while regulators and states responsible for their distribution iron out the new process.
An estimated 4 million workers have likely stopped receiving benefits for a few months after maxing out the number of weekly payments to them set out in the CARES Act, the first stimulus package. How long it takes for a new system to be up and running, how long to wait for another check. Other programs enhanced by the CARES Act are expected to expire in December. Given the bureaucratic complications of the 50-state unemployment insurance system, the transition is likely to be chaotic.
"These things are on a timer, and once the timer expires, resetting that timer is not easy," said Elizabeth Pancotti, policy advisor with Employ America advocacy group.
Cliffworkers face a different face now than they did in late July, when the federal government's weekly expanded unemployment pay of $ 600 ended.
By that point, the unemployed had raised an additional $ 2,400 per month thanks to the CARES Act, which allowed some of them to increase their savings and not increase the poverty rate. But the United States has been in the pandemic for months now, and for many, all of the savings made possible by these additional benefits have dried up. It's one thing to save up for a few months in an emergency. It is another thing to do for a year.
It's not great to wait until the last minute to make one last attempt to help people
The Coronavirus Aid, Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act, President Donald Trump's $ 2.2 trillion stimulus package that went into effect in late March, had a range of subsidies for the unemployed.
By late July, federal unemployment benefits were paid in addition to state unemployment benefits at $ 600 per week. It also launched a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which expanded unemployment insurance to include freelancers, gig workers, contractors, and the self-employed. and created the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which adds an additional 13 weeks of regular government unemployment insurance up to 39 weeks. Both should end at the end of December.
In designing these programs, Congress made many assumptions about how the US would deal with the pandemic – mainly that it would do a better job than bringing the virus under control so people could get back to work. Nine months later, America still has 10 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic, and as the coronavirus continues to spread, many places across the country are again facing closings and the threat of further job losses.
The latest stimulus plan put on the table by Congress would include additional weekly federal payments of $ 300 for 16 weeks (basically halving the previous $ 600) and also extend the programs, due to expire in late December, by 16 weeks. That's good, but experts warn that given the tight legislation, the unemployed will inevitably have to wait weeks before they can collect the money they owe.
When and when a new law is passed and incorporated into law, it is up to the Department of Labor to issue guidelines and regulations that specify how states should implement the law, and this process takes time. Pancotti said exactly how long will vary by program, but she estimates it could take two to eight weeks for checks to run out.
A similar situation existed when the CARES bill was passed in March: it took states a long time to get their systems up and running for new and expanded unemployment programs, which frustrated workers with the system. The same thing happened with the Lost Wage Assistance Program that President Trump launched this summer by order of the executive branch to give some workers a temporary boost.
"If we get a bill at the end of the week, it will be Christmas next week," said Pancotti. In other words, the delays could be worse this time as many of the people needed to set up these systems will not be in the office.
Some help is obviously better than no help, but the delays in assisting people, especially well into the pandemic, could prove disastrous for many workers. Pancotti estimates that 4 million workers have already used up their performance weeks for 2020, and some of those workers have been without benefits for months. The longer they remain without help, the worse the situation becomes. And even for the participants in the programs that last until December, errors can still occur when states reorganize their administrative systems to take into account, for example, the fact that weekly payments have been cut in half.
While workers receive reimbursement every time the law is passed, waiting can be disastrous for many.
"We're going to see a wave of displacement, poverty and suicide – this is already a difficult time for mental health. People may be drug free, chronic health conditions worsen, potentially topping up high-yield credit cards, getting payday loans or going to pawn shops," said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, recently told CNBC.
Workers can turn to extended benefits, which are always part of the unemployment system, and extend regular state benefits by six to 20 weeks, depending on the economic conditions in their state – basically when the employment situation is particularly poor. Participants in this program will not be fired unless Congress provides fresh impetus, and Pancotti estimates that approximately 3 million people with expanded CARES Act benefits could be enrolled in this program. Even so, it could get messy and many states no longer have extended benefits.
Washington doesn't have to work like this. Neither does the unemployment system.
2020 uncovered many shortcomings in America, including how we treat workers – both those who kept their jobs and those who lost them – and the extent to which the US unemployment system is deeply problematic in its design.
It works under a hybrid state setup that just doesn't work in many cases. The federal government sets minimum parameters and makes funds available. In the meantime, states are on their own when it comes to how they organize their unemployment systems, how generously they are with benefits, what parameters are set up, and what resources are included in their programs.
So for the workers, how lucky they are in controlling the unemployment process Receiving payments – even in normal times – depends on the state in which you live. In addition, unemployment insurance is chronically underfunded and unsupervised, so the problems increase for years.
There is a lot of guilt for the current unemployment situation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been a major barrier to further stimulus for months, and the refusal to compromise on certain issues – such as whether states and cities should get government aid – has proven extremely costly to millions of Americans.
It's not just about procrastination on Capitol Hill. If and when a new law is introduced there will be additional, unnecessary delays as there are many bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome that are often inconvenient and intentionally difficult to navigate for the most vulnerable workers.
More and more people are realizing the problems with unemployment during bad times. But when times are "good" again, they go on and the political will to fix anything wanes. There are ways to fix the unemployment system so that it works better in good times and bad. Part of this could mean that expanded federal benefits are permanent and more automatic triggers are deployed to help workers during times of economic stress. If the unemployment system were different now, it wouldn't be the week before Christmas with workers in trouble, no matter what Congress decides.
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