No turning back on pandemic unemployment support
© OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Amid a once-in-a-generation crisis, Republican-led states are pulling out all stops to abandon their responsibility to unemployed workers and their families. These states have decided to roll back emergency pandemic unemployment payments, which are fully funded by the federal government. Their misguided actions will hurt workers, families, and the nation’s recovery, and will exacerbate existing racial, gender, and class inequities.

After news broke that a growing list of governors want to deny pandemic unemployment payments to jobless workers, my colleagues and I sent an urgent letter to the U.S. Labor Department, pointing out that even if states decide to opt out of the program, the federal government is obligated to pay the benefits to workers who qualify for aid. Failure to do so would not only harm our most vulnerable, it would be in direct violation of the department’s duty to provide these benefits under federal law.

For the tens of millions of workers who have been unable to work because their jobs disappeared, or because of family obligations, health care concerns, or unsafe workplaces, these benefits have helped them stay afloat.

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Workers and fellow advocates fought fiercely for this critical aid. They fought again for these benefits to be available until September, affording millions of families the time and stability necessary to chart a path out of pandemic life and back to employment.

States abruptly ending participation in the fully-federally-funded pandemic unemployment programs is nothing short of cruel, not to mention ill-informed. Economists maintain that $1 of jobless aid generates $1.61 in the local economy, which boosts spending, saves jobs, and prevents evictions. Robbing people of this economic lifeline does nothing to stimulate the economy. It holds all of us back.

If the last year taught us anything, it’s that we are interdependent for our collective financial, physical, and emotional well-being.

Rebuilding our economy so it’s resilient and works for everyone means putting Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant workers — who have faced more job loss and worse health outcomes than their white counterparts due to structural racism — at the center of our recovery. Same for women, who have had to exit the workforce in droves to handle caregiving and schooling obligations for their children.

In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s move to end federally funded resources unfairly burdens Black workers. The statewide unemployment rate for white workers is 3.8 percent compared to 6.3 percent for Black workers. Ending this economic lifeline would leave approximately 166,000 people stranded and deprive their communities of more than $891 million.

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In Montana, although the statewide unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, the indigenous unemployment rate remains as high as 13.3 percent in some tribes. High unemployment rates continue to plague several counties, including Big Horn and Glacier Counties (9 percent). Republican Gov. Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteOvernight Energy: Dakota Access Pipeline fined over safety violations | Electric cars to outsell combustion vehicles in US by 2036 | Montana governor mobilizes National Guard to assist with wildfires Montana governor mobilizes National Guard to assist with wildfires Montana governor lifts COVID-19 state of emergency MORE ignores that the statewide unemployment rate is an insufficient indicator of the state’s real labor market conditions.

In southern states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama, which have made the deepest program cuts and have a higher share of Black residents, policymakers want to delay the recovery for workers by hastening the abrupt termination of benefits. This will disproportionately harm Black workers who, due to systemic racism, face higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. Recovery delayed for some is recovery delayed for all.

For everyone struggling through unemployment right now — especially underpaid workers, women, and workers of color — taking away promised aid will only extend suffering and prolong the recovery. History bears this out. After the Great Recession, states that cut benefits recovered slower than those with stronger jobless aid programs.

Widespread reliance on pandemic unemployment programs should be seen as an economic success in a time of great need: our government is providing people the help they need to keep a roof over their families’ heads until they can get back on their feet. In fact, the biggest hindrance to economic recovery is not unemployment; it’s a shortage of good jobs that value the dignity of workers, pay a livable wage, and provide safe workplace conditions, together with inadequate work supports such as child care and elder care.

Proposed “alternatives” to unemployment assistance, like return-to-work bonuses, are insufficient and potentially harmful. They could well become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs and inadequate work supports. If anything, governments at all levels, as well as employers, ought to raise wages to at least $15 an hour and provide the basic rights that workers need to feel safe and supported on the job, such as paid leave, health care, and workplace safety standards.

This is the moment for our movement to be heard. State and federal governments need to make sweeping fixes to our unemployment systems, not undermine them further. Grassroots organizations like Unemployed Workers United, Unemployed Action, and Step Up Louisiana are demanding change. Unemployed people and their allies are organizing and advocating for necessary reforms that will transform the system so that we’ll all have the support we need in the next crisis, without leaving anyone behind.

States making unprincipled decisions to cut off unemployment for people in vulnerable situations ought to reverse course. Nobody wins unless everybody wins, and when it comes to cutting off pandemic unemployment payments, all of us will suffer.

Nicole Marquez is the director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), where she guides unemployment insurance, home health care, retirement security, and other social insurance programs using a racial equity and worker-centered approach.