Millions of unemployed workers now rely solely on state benefits — and they vary wildly
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This week, more than 30 million people started facing their economic futures without an additional $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits.
It means that until Congress hammers out a deal for more pandemic relief, the vast majority of those without jobs will have to rely on state unemployment insurance to carry them through.
And the gap isn’t just about cost of living. “The big difference is the philosophy,” said Christopher O’Leary, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “Is unemployment something that supports the labor market or is it a business cost to be minimized?”
There is no federal standard for unemployment benefits, so states create their own rules around who qualifies, how much they get and for how long.
“In some states like Florida and North Carolina, only about 10% of people who are unemployed are even able to get a benefit,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.
That impacts people’s access to food and shelter. During a pandemic, it also dramatically increases their risk of getting sick.
“Because of monetary concerns they have to take an unsafe job,” said Evermore. “And that’s actually going to spread the virus and slow the recovery even further.” She added that Black and Latino workers may suffer most because states with the smallest benefits have the biggest minority populations.
And all of this can have direct effects on a state’s economic health. Because while that extra $600 meant a lot to workers who lost their jobs, it also meant a lot to all the businesses relying on people who were spending it, said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Unemployment benefits have a really important effect of propping up the greater economy.”
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?
Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.
How has the pandemic changed scientific research?
Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.
What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?
Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”
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