Economy & Budget

Unprecedented health crisis called for historic expansion of unemployment insurance

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As communities across the nation take serious steps to confront the coronavirus, we must work together to ensure that our hospitals and health care professionals have the resources they will need in the grueling weeks and months ahead. From masks to widely available coronavirus testing, it is our responsibility to combat this public health crisis and help those on the frontlines working to prevent the spread of this devastating disease.

At the same time, we must also ease the burden that this pandemic has thrust on the record 3.3 million Americans who recently filed for unemployment. This unprecedented public health emergency has not spared any portion of the private sector, taking an especially brutal toll on the small businesses that drive local economies in our home states of Michigan and Oregon — and all across our country.

In a typical recession, these workers and entrepreneurs would be able to begin searching for new jobs right away, but preventing a crippling overload of our health care system requires that they stay at home and companies remain closed. To make matters worse, the existing unemployment insurance program is completely unequipped to support workers in the current emergency.

Simply put, this challenge is urgent, and the tools we have previously used during emergencies will not get the job done.

That is why we introduced legislation that would significantly expand unemployment assistance. After negotiating in a bipartisan manner, our legislation was included in the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that is now law. The unemployment insurance provisions in this package will significantly increase unemployment compensation benefits and help Americans who are facing unemployment as a result of this crisis make ends meet.

Our bill will create the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, modeled on the existing disaster assistance fund. These types of benefits have never been extended for public health crises, but this is an unprecedented challenge. While states will still administer the allocation of benefits, the federal government will pick up the entire tab, ensuring that this initiative will not place new pressures on already cash-strapped state funds. Additionally, this program will work to cover the gaps in the current unemployment insurance system by granting benefits to those who are self-employed, working in the gig economy or as independent contractors, caring for children who are out of school, working reduced hours due to shelter-in-place orders, or quarantined due to coronavirus exposure.

Importantly, we can’t allow anyone to fall through the cracks. That’s why our bill takes extra steps to increase benefits for those not covered by the current system. We’re also establishing a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and allowing for workers in most states to access benefits through the end of the year. To help speed up the current system, our bill will also provide incentives for states to eliminate the one-week waiting period between applying for and receiving benefits.

In addition to expanding those benefits, our legislation will also take important steps towards providing wage replacement for the average worker who has lost his or her job – whether they are covered by regular unemployment insurance or by this new program. Traditional unemployment assistance only replaces a third to half of wages, depending on the state. Helping replace hardworking folks’ wages is essential at a time when not looking for work is critical to protecting public health.

From Detroit to Portland, hardworking men and women are trying to figure out how they and their families will overcome the challenges of the daunting situation facing the nation. Workers across the nation impacted by the pandemic should not have to worry about whether they can put food on the table or make ends meet. It is our job in the U.S. Senate to have their backs by crafting a legislative response that rises to the occasion. Unemployment insurance expansion is critical to helping more Americans not only get through this crisis, but come out on the other side even stronger.

Sen. Gary Peters is ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Sen. Ron Wyden is ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Tags Gary Peters Ron Wyden

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