For all the talk about what’s in “Build Back Better” recovery legislation that Democrats are trying to move through Congress, one thing that’s not currently in the bill, in what many workers’ advocates say is a glaring omission, is anything to do with Unemployment Insurance—which was badly in need of a refresh long before the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that when workers lose a job, they have the protection they need.
In fact, workers’ advocates and progressive think tanks have been ringing the alarm bells for years about how few jobless workers were protected by our UI system. The pre-pandemic share of jobless workers actually helped by UI in their time of need? Just 1 in 4, a record low.
One of the most important lessons from the pandemic is without question the structural failings in America’s Unemployment Insurance system—gaps that were in many cases briefly filled by temporary expansions of jobless protections that have since been allowed to expire, leaving millions of still-jobless workers with less than they need to get by, or worse, nothing at all to keep them and their families afloat.
For a look at the state of Unemployment Insurance now that recent expansions have been allowed to run out, what jobless workers are facing right now, and the long-needed UI fixes that workers’ advocates are hoping might still be included in upcoming recovery legislation… for this week’s Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with a panel of UI experts and advocates who have been leading the charge: Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project; Andy Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation; and Stephanie Freed, a freelancer turned UI organizer who founded and serves as the executive director of Extend PUA, which has organized tens of thousands of jobless workers in the fight to extend federal UI expansions during the pandemic.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
For all the talk about what’s in the so-called “Build Back Better” recovery legislation that Democrats are trying to muscle through Congress as we speak, one thing that’s not currently in the bill, in what many workers’ advocates say is a glaring omission, is unemployment insurance, which was badly in need of a refresh long before the COVID pandemic to ensure that when workers lose a job, they have the protection they need.
In fact, workers’ advocates and progressive think tanks have been ringing the alarm bells for years, pretty much since the Great Recession, about how few jobless workers were protected by our UI system. The pre-COVID share of jobless workers actually helped by jobless benefits in their time of need? Just 1 in 4: the lowest in the history of the unemployment insurance program.
While the notion of lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic is probably approaching cliché status at this point, one of the top such takeaways from the past 18 months is, without question, the structural gaps in America’s unemployment system: gaps that are, in some ways, mirrored by recent federal expansions of jobless protections to reach workers who have disproportionately been left behind by unemployment insurance in the U.S., such as so-called gig workers, and workers of color. Expansions of jobless protections that it’s important to note have since been allowed to expire, leaving millions of still jobless workers with less than they need to get by, or worse, nothing at all to keep them and their families afloat.
So, this week on Off-Kilter, for a look at the state of unemployment insurance, now that recent expansions have been allowed to run out, as well as what jobless workers are facing right now, and the long-needed UI fixes that workers’ advocates are hoping might still be included in upcoming “Build Back Better” recovery legislation, I sat down with three unemployment insurance experts and advocates who have been leading the charge. Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, better known as NELP; Andy Stettner is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation; and Stephanie Freed is a freelancer turned unemployment insurance organizer who co-founded and serves as the executive director of ExtendPUA.org. She’s organized tens of thousands of jobless workers in the fight to extend federal UI expansions during the pandemic. Let’s take a listen.
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VALLAS: Rebecca, Andrew, Stephanie, thank you so much to all of you for making the time to come on the show.
ANDY STETTNER: Thank you for having us.
STEPHANIE FREED: Yeah, thank you.
VALLAS: So, before we get into the picture for unemployment insurance itself and—we’re gonna get wonky, but we need to because it’s really important, I think, for folks to understand some of the details here—I’d love to start with a look at unemployment right now in the U.S. as policymakers continue to try to bring this pandemic to a close. While the overall unemployment rate nationally is just over 5 percent according to the Department of Labor, that kind of headline statistic often doesn’t tell us much about the actual picture for workers who are struggling to find jobs or to find sufficient employment if they’re underemployed.
Rebecca, I’m gonna start with you to kick us off with what we know about the state of unemployment right now in the U.S. And in particular, who’s bearing the brunt of joblessness right now in ways that might be somewhat obscured by that overall unemployment statistic?
REBECCA DIXON: Sure, Rebecca. One of the things that we know about any downturn, and has also been true so far for any recovery we’ve had, is that workers of color have higher unemployment rates. They tend to be the first fired and the last rehired. And in this pandemic, it’s been described as a “she-cession” because generally, men are the ones who lose their jobs the most during a recession, but that was not the case in this pandemic. And so, women especially have been hard hit in this pandemic and have not recovered. And some of that is due to the complex nature of what folks are dealing with in the labor market right now, particularly women being the primary caregivers and not having a care infrastructure that’s working and the resurgence of COVID with the Delta variant.
VALLAS: And staying with you, Rebecca, talk a little bit about what we know about unemployed workers in this moment, how long many of them had been unemployed. That’s another statistic and sort of element of the conversation that gets obscured by overall headline statistics that sometimes are trotted out to make it seem as though we actually have a fairly rosy picture right now.
DIXON: Right. We have elevated long-term unemployment, which is technically being unemployed 27 weeks, so about six months. And those numbers are still very elevated compared to prior to the pandemic. And we know from the last recession that the longer you are out of the labor force, the harder it is to get back in. Employers tend to think that your skills are not as fresh and sort of view you as more of a risk.
VALLAS: So, turning now to unemployment insurance itself, UI, Andy, I’d like to bring you in next. A major component of federal relief during the COVID pandemic has been a set of expansions to unemployment insurance, most or all of which have been allowed to expire. Remind us about what those expansions did and which groups of workers in particular they targeted.
STETTNER: Yeah, we went into this pandemic with a really broken unemployment program. It was neglected. It was only covering less than 1 out of 4 workers that are out of work. And that’s because it had not been updated to reflect changes in the labor market: the rise of low-wage work, the rise of the gig economy. All these workers were not covered by unemployment benefits, nor were people that would lose their job because their schools were closed. And so, Congress really stepped in and decided that they were gonna pass programs in The CARES Act to fill in those gaps. Senator Schumer described it as “unemployment insurance on steroids.”
So, there [was] a big new program that’s the namesake of Stephanie’s organization, PUA. This is for workers who are not eligible for unemployment benefits: those who are self-employed; those who were not working long enough or earning enough before the pandemic; and also, those who were forced to stop working because their kids’ childcare was closed, their kids’ schools were closed, they themselves got sick, someone in their family got sick. These individuals were able to get the PUA benefit. Those who lost a job offer, for example, those graduating high school or college who had a job offer lined up for May 2020 that fell through because of the pandemic, they could get the PUA benefit. And it was a program that had a tremendous amount of challenges but was tremendously successful, at one point covering 15 million people a week by the end of last summer were getting the PUA benefit.
Then we had a situation where the benefits provided by the states were too short. The pandemic closures were through last summer, and then people took a long time to get back to work. So, for those long-term unemployed that Rebecca Dixon was talking about, there was an extension put into place, PEUC, that was for the long-term unemployed who can’t get state benefits. And this program also was carried through Labor Day of this year, and it was extended several times so people who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, in most cases, were able to continue to get benefits, especially if they were one of the states that didn’t pull out of the program early. But they were able to continue getting benefits all the way through Labor Day of this year.
So, in short, we made a pact with our neighbors, and we said to them, “If you lost your job because of the pandemic, we’re going to try to have you avoid having the rest of your financial life and personal life colored by this pandemic, meaning that you would have an experience of further downward mobility. We’re going to have a safety net that would cover you and enable you to avoid downward mobility.” And one additional way we did that, and we don’t want to avoid is, we top off the benefits. Typically, unemployment benefits replace less than half of workers’ wages, 40 percent of wages. We added an initial $600 a week to those benefits to make closer to 100 percent for the average worker, and then that was scaled back but continued at $300 a week through all 2021. So, we made the benefits able to cover more of workers’ basic expenses so they wouldn’t have to eat into their savings through this pandemic. So, there was very historic changes and additions to benefits made.
VALLAS: And staying with you for a moment, Andy—and Stephanie, I’m gonna bring you in next to tell a little bit of the story behind the organization Andy mentioned, which bears PUA in its name—Andy, what do we know about what those expansions of unemployment insurance have meant for workers throughout the pandemic? We’ve got lots and lots of data, some of which comes from the Census when it looks at poverty, but other sources as well. What do we know about how much that expansion of UI made a difference when it comes to workers’ financial security?
STETTNER: Well, on the macro level, what’s astonishing is that the combined impacts of unemployment benefits and the stimulus payments and other programs—but those are the leading two—in fact, allowed us to decrease poverty, even at a time when unemployment had been surging in 2020. The Census Bureau poverty statistics came out last week, and they found when you factor in different government payments, poverty was actually lower than it was in 2019 because we filled in those gaps. Unemployment insurance alone kept five-and-a-half million people out of the official poverty rate. So, that is by no means everyone who lost their job ‘cause not everyone got unemployment benefits, and not everyone got enough benefits to lift them out of poverty. But it was a huge impact.
And it’s a differential impact. We do see that some families were able to maintain or even build up a little bit of savings through the different government programs, which is very important right now when the benefits expired. But we didn’t see that among Black and Latino families, that the bills were coming in so hot and heavy from job loss related to the pandemic and a little bit of cushion going in that those families really just kind of, just were able to scrape by with these benefits. And that’s what I think is a really important piece of this: Low-income families, our studies show that they spend three quarters of their income on the basics. So, having decent wage replacement that we’ve had through the expanded unemployment benefits is just a bare necessity during this historic period.
VALLAS: Stephanie, coming to you next. You’ve been one of the workers who has been leading the charge to extend those federal UI expansions that Andy was laying out. And it quickly becomes alphabet soup when you start to name all of them and get into acronyms. But Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, PUA as it’s often called, is in the name of the organization you founded, you co-founded, ExtendPUA.org. Tell the story of how you came to start up ExtendPUA.org and what that experience has been like, and also some of the workers that you’ve been working with. Obviously, this has not been a solo journey.
FREED: Sure. The funny thing about mentioning all of the acronyms is we started the organization to advocate for FPUC, [chuckles] which is that top-off amount of money that was making the unemployment insurance livable during the pandemic. So, my co-founder, Grant McDonald, and I are members of the entertainment industry, which obviously shuttered pretty significantly during the pandemic. And we were both unemployed, and we started to ExtendPUA.org in July of 2020 when the FPUC was about to expire because that $600 top-off was what was making unemployment a livable situation for our entire industry. And all of our friends were panicking. All of our colleagues were panicking. And so, it really just started, [laughs] the intention was a letter campaign for the entertainment industry, sending it out to our legislators and trying to extend that program.
We very quickly realized how big this issue was and that it wasn’t our industry, and we were not the only people on PUA and FPUC. And a lot of people were reaching out, and we’ve got a lot of stories. And so, we aimed to fill a hole we felt was there from who was reaching out to us. And we expanded to all industries, to all people who were on unemployment and started taking people to meet their senators, which is not a thing we knew how to do. I’ve never been in politics or advocacy. We just tried. And there was enough of a need, and there were enough constituents that wanted to speak to their legislators and tell their stories and a lot of really brave people. And we met with 40 senators. We put out media. We did everything we could. And it was all worker-driven because this was a historic crisis, but also an opportunity with a significant amount of people on unemployment that hadn’t seen how damaged the system and—not damaged; it was built this way on purpose—and how wrong it is. And people were ready to fight that.
VALLAS: And you, through that work, have, if I’ve got my numbers right, you’ve worked with and organized tens of thousands of unemployed workers across the country. You wrote recently in a powerful essay for Business Insider, I’m gonna quote you here, “It’s been like this rolling cliff that no one’s ever gotten to stop and get to breathe and just survive the pandemic. Everyone who’s lost their jobs, millions of people, have just been waiting and being pushed off of cliffs.”
Andy was talking before about the expiration of some of these key expansions. So, we had the mother of all cliffs, actually, right around Labor Day, earlier this month. What is the picture for jobless workers right now, now that we’ve seen the expirations of so many important federal UI expansions that you all have been fighting to extend?
FREED: Yeah, speaking about the rolling cliffs, which I think is something people forget when they’re looking at what’s happening right now, is that July of 2020 was the first cliff. And a lot of workers never recovered from that cliff. When that $600 went away, people went down to this base benefit level for five months. It was gone for five full months. And in Oklahoma, the average benefit amount is $44 a week. So, people are living off of these small amounts for five months. And then it does come back in December, and it comes back at $300 instead of the $600. And so, people don’t exactly recover what they needed to. And then we keep having these cliffs that we’re worried about. And people get kicked off of them, and then they try to get back on because almost every extension that has happened has waited until the last minute.
And so, it’s just been like this rolling disaster, and people haven’t recovered from the FPUC expiring or haven’t gotten back on benefits at all. And then now they’re gone, and they’re gone completely. It’s not like people who got kicked back to this base benefit level that is difficult to live off of, people have been given nothing. And it is difficult to, sitting in this community surrounded by the people who are in need of these programs, it’s difficult to hear numbers like “unemployment rate is at 5 percent.” Because it doesn’t take into account that that’s millions of people, and those people have faces and families and are struggling and are living in cars and are telling their stories. And it’s difficult to sum them up in a small percentage of people, and I feel like the fact that we do that, and we have to do that sometimes, makes them feel forgotten and because they are part of a smaller percentage of people, they don’t matter. And that’s not true. And that’s the part that I’m worried about the most, is how discouraged at this point everyone who is left in an unemployed situation is feeling at this point.
VALLAS: Rebecca, I wanna bring you back in, because as we look at the state of unemployment insurance today, following all of those cliffs that Stephanie and Andy have been talking about, many workers’ advocates, yourself included, have been highlighting that what we’re back to right now is pretty much a picture of how broken and inadequate the underlying unemployment system was and is and has been for a long time, well before the COVID pandemic. You are a student of history, among many things, when it comes to the unemployment insurance system and a deeper expert on that subject than most people in this country. And so, I’m gonna turn to you to ask, how did we get to a place where, absent emergency federal expansions, just 1 in 4 jobless workers are protected upon job loss? What’s the history behind why so many workers in the U.S. are excluded, or at best, underinsured by unemployment insurance?
DIXON: Sure, Rebecca. So, when we created this program—and I do appreciate that my fellow panelists said this is not broken; it was designed to work this way. And it was—so, it was created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal programs, and it was specifically designed with a specific type of worker in mind. So, a white male manufacturing worker who had temporary layoffs, and that’s who it was designed for. It was paid for by employers who were very interested in making sure that those workers were still around when they had shutdowns to come back to work when the shutdowns were over.
Well, what we have now is a much— So, in the beginning, we left out a whole lot of workers, you know, probably half of workers of color beyond Black workers, and then for Black workers, many more. So, in the case of Black women, 90 percent of them were left out of the original unemployment insurance program because it didn’t cover workers who worked as domestics, and it didn’t cover workers who worked in agriculture, including workers who were sharecropping: so, not working as an employee, considered working as an employee, for someone else. And so, this whole program was built for one type of worker. And over the years, it’s changed a little, but still pointed at a specific kind of worker.
And what I would say is it’s built now for the quote-unquote “ideal worker” of now, which is somebody who has a stable middle-class-paying job, where they have steady wages. They get the same pay every week, they have reliable hours, and they have paid time off. And so, when they lose their job, they can wait weeks and weeks to get an unemployment check because we also saw there were big disruptions in actually just getting the payments out the door. And when we’re talking about lots the folks who are left out, so your workers who are underpaid. And folks call them “low-wage workers,” but they’re really underpaid, right, because their labor has been undervalued for so long. So, you have underpaid workers who were never, don’t have access to the system because the way the benefits are calculated, their earnings don’t add up to enough to get an unemployment payment. You have a whole swath of workers who are what we would consider misclassified as independent contractors. In much the same way that sharecroppers were called independent contractors and missed out on a lot of benefits during the Depression, we also see where the platform workers and self-employed workers were categorically left out of the system, and as Andy said, Andrew said, had to be added back in by Congress.
And so, now we’re left with this patchwork of systems. So, all of these federal enhancements that made the program fairer, that made the program actually accessible to underpaid workers, to workers of color who are generally left out, those things are all gone now, and we’re left with a patchwork of systems. There are 53 different systems, and they have different ways to calculate benefits. They have different amounts of benefits. They have different numbers of weeks that they cover. So, depending on where you are in the country when this disaster hit, you either had a decent UI program that provided you with enough support to look for work and to maintain your basic needs or you didn’t. And it’s just unacceptable. Like, it’s way past time to fix UI for good, to actually take a step back and transform this system into a system that is accessible for all workers, that provides a base level of support, so workers can keep themselves, keep their families going while they look for work all the time, not just when there’s a crisis, and not just when there’s a pandemic.
VALLAS: Well, and to that point, and I wanna stay with you for a moment here, Rebecca, to pull on that thread, unemployment insurance has been a visible part of the national debate during the pandemic, but in a way that is not something that usually happens outside of crisis, right? It’s the program that policymakers are very good at forgetting about, and the media, I should say, are very good at forgetting about when we’re not in a moment of recession or some other kind of crisis that’s spurring widespread unemployment. And to that end, many of the quote-unquote “lessons” that you and Andy and others have really been saying we need to be learning from this pandemic when it comes to our unemployment insurance system are actually quote “lessons” that we arguably should have learned from the Great Recession and the recovery following it. What are some of those lessons, and what are the fixes that you and others, those long-term structural fixes, as you put it, that you and others have been pushing for since long before the pandemic threw us back into a moment when people are finally paying attention to UI?
DIXON: Right. One of the lessons is that for some working people, they are always in recession, and they are always in crisis. And by that, I mean they work in precarious industries, like some of the industries that are saying they can’t find workers, like restaurants and retail, right? So, they work in these jobs where they don’t have steady hours. Your hours can be 8 hours this week, they can be 25 next week, 40 next week. You have no idea. And now with the just-in-time scheduling software, you also don’t have very much notice in terms of when you’re actually gonna have hours to work. And these workers don’t have any paid time off. So, they didn’t have paid sick leave. They don’t have paid family leave. If a family member gets COVID, they have to go home. They may lose their job. And where we’re sitting right now, with schools being largely reopened, but parents getting that dreaded call to come pick up their child because they’re either sick or there’s a COVID in their classroom, and they have to be quarantined, those of us with flexible jobs get to just go pick up our kids, and life goes on. But if you’re working at a job where you have no paid time off, then you risk losing that job. So, you have to choose between family and work. And so, that’s the life that some workers are living all the time, not just when there’s a pandemic. But we have a program that’s just built for people who have savings and who are relatively secure. And we should really take a look at this program.
So, some of the lessons we’ve learned is that right now is the time to start fixing this program for good. So, right now, we have an opportunity in the legislation that’s coming up to actually put a down payment on these fixes. So, we can put in place that every state has to pay 26 weeks of benefits, right? You don’t have to be less secure depending on where you live. And just to make super clear: A lot of the states where the benefits are poor in terms of the rate of the weekly benefit and also the duration are southern states, and more than 50 percent of Black workers live in southern states. And so, there is definitely a racial consequence to allowing states to make choices that really aren’t tied to anything economic, right? They’re just different ways that workers are facing this program.
And so, we need to have 26 weeks of benefits. Andrew mentioned it pays, you know, replaces less than 50 percent of wages, so around 44 percent, but much less for workers in those states with really low benefit payments. So, we need to have a baseline of what workers can depend on when they’re out of work. And that can happen now. And so, the time to fix this is not later when the economy is completely recovered. It’s right now.
VALLAS: And Andy, I wanna bring you back in, because one of the clarion calls that we’ve heard from a range of Democrats in Congress, as well as economists, throughout this pandemic has been that we should be timing the expiration of aid like expanded unemployment insurance based on economic conditions instead of on politics or arbitrary sunsets that can cause workers to live on and go over cliffs, like Stephanie was describing. But there’s been no shortage of handwringing around, especially among conservatives and particularly conservative governors, I should note, around whether UI discourages work, and what is its effect on the economy and on the labor market. Talk to me about the politics here, as well as whether there’s any truth to those claims about discouraging work, which have really been at the heart of what you and many others have been saying are premature expirations of UI in many states.
STETTNER: Yeah, what happened was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went on an offensive against unemployed workers, saying that unemployment benefits were holding back the recovery in the spring. And they got wholehearted support, first by the governor of Montana, who jumped in and did the unprecedented decision of pulling out of the benefits, 100 percent federally-funded benefits paid through the American Rescue Plan, even though he was the governor of communities like Native American communities, still suffering double digit unemployment rates at that time. And that we have a political issue in other Republican governors, and there’s some great investigative reporting of the governor of North Dakota decided to pull out, too, even though their state career officials are saying this is gonna cause a lot of hardship for workers on benefits. They kind of went with the politics.
And what we’ve seen is this claim that ending benefits would change the trajectory of employment hasn’t held up. About half the states pulled out of benefits. They didn’t grow jobs faster over the summer or see their unemployment rate decline faster from some of the states that maintained the benefits. As our, as the former president complained, it’s always about COVID, COVID, COVID. What we’ve seen through this pandemic was when we’ve gotten our handle around the pandemic, the rates of job finding have increased. They increased when the nationwide closing ended. They increased once the vaccination program was able to take hold in the spring of this year. And they have declined in the month of August as the Delta surge came back. People understand there’s no long-term future in unemployment benefits. They want to get back to work. They wanna find a decent job that can take care of themselves and their family and have benefits, a path to retirement. Those are things people want.
And we’ve seen just in this year alone go from 20 million on benefits end of February to under 12 million when the benefits were cut off. Most of those are people that found work in that time. What happened here was we just didn’t give that process enough time to play out. And rather than basing it on something that would feel solid, like the national unemployment rate, as flawed as it is, would be something like 5 percent for 3 months in a row, or that we’ve had the COVID cases under control. But instead, it was arbitrary. The benefits were cut off just as we saw COVID cases surging up again and complicating returns of work for so many different industries, so many different people. This is exactly the wrong time for the benefits to expire.
VALLAS: And Andy, staying with you for a moment, one of the things that you have been doing throughout this pandemic, in addition to continuing to ring the alarm bells about coming cliffs and highlighting what UI has meant for workers as well as who’s still been left out—a conversation that we need to come back to, particularly when it comes to some of the access barriers that workers have been facing—one of the things that you’ve also been doing throughout this pandemic is taking a look back at other points in U.S. history, and in particular, recent U.S. history, when we’ve had economic downturns and where we’ve seen federal intervention to extend or expand unemployment insurance to help those surges of unemployed workers.
And in one of your recent reports for The Century Foundation, you actually took a look at a couple of analogous points in recent U.S. history where we had far fewer unemployed workers still struggling to find work, and yet, federal policymakers saw fit to extend expanded unemployment insurance well beyond the point that we’re seeing right now in terms of what’s politically feasible or what’s even on the table for discussion. Talk a little bit about some of those comparison points and some of why we’re at such a different point in the national conversation right now, despite so many people in need.
STETTNER: Well, I think I’d be remiss to also say I wanted to thank Stephanie for just giving voice to what that feels like to be part of that cliff, you know, to be as part of a number that’s smaller than it was, not as ubiquitous to be heard in the media and from people in your community that, “You’re lazy. You don’t wanna get back to work,” but that just kind of puts aside the real math of this. We had more people out of work than we’ve ever seen before in this country so quickly. And anyone who’s looked for a job at any point in their life knows that it’s a lot easier to lose a job than it is to find a job. It takes time to get back to work. Historically, Congress has kind of understood that. They have maintained extended benefits deeper into a recovery period, three or four years after the official end of a recession, knowing that there’s real damage from long-term unemployment, and it takes people to get back to work time. And financial support is needed until people can get a job.
So, even in December 2013, the last time benefits were cut off in the wake of the Great Recession, there was only 1.3 million people on those benefits at that time. In December 2012, a Republican Congress voted to extend benefits when there was just about 2 million people on benefits for another year, on a bipartisan basis. But here today, we are cutting off over 8 million workers in benefits. George Bush, in 2003, decided to extend benefits when there was just 700,000 people still long-term unemployed. So, we just are, this is such a larger scale of people being cut off than we ever had seen before. It’s as if there was an impulse to support Americans who lost their job, but because we did more, the sympathy ran out quicker. There’s like a sympathy limit that people have, and they spent it faster than they had before ‘cause there’s a limit to how much sympathy we have for unemployed people. And it’s certainly expired.
And as Stephanie and Rebecca know because they’ve been in this, all the advocacy and lobbying, you know, we felt it waning in Congress and the public support by the spring of this year as soon as this Chamber of Commerce attack came. It impacted governors. And it impacts the president who said, after the April jobs numbers, that he thought the benefits should end around Labor Day. So, I think we’ve seen that sympathy wane. And it is a kind of quiet tragedy for so many people who are out there who are experiencing this.
VALLAS: And Stephanie, I wanna bring you back in. And Andy noted yet again your incredible leadership, and ExtendPUA.org’s incredible leadership, in helping to give voice to those many, many, many workers across the country who otherwise get sort of obscured by statistics and facts and figures. Would you be willing to share with us a few stories of some of the workers that have been involved with the Extend PUA campaign and some of the folks that you’ve been working alongside in trying to elevate the voices and the stories of the people whose lives are very much on the line here, and well-being is very much on the line here, as Congress continues to, it appears, forget that unemployment insurance is still very much something that should be a live discussion right now?
FREED: Yeah. Actually, as Andrew was speaking about the disincentivizing work, I went into, we have a form on our website where people can submit their stories, and we received a couple hundred stories in just September. And looking at them right now, 90 percent of them are women. So, just noting that first. And then I pulled a couple of quotes about why people are not going back to work or why these benefits, one of the questions is, “Why should these benefits be extended?” And first, I’ll say that the rhetoric around “it’s disincentivizing” is insulting. The data shows, as it’s already been pointed out, that it’s not a disincentive, but it’s also people in this country aren’t lazy. And the fact that we’re assuming the people who have been the most hurt by this crisis are the lazy people is really just a sad way to look at the world that we’re letting our politicians spin and our corporations spin.
The workers that we’re hearing from are trying. They talk to us constantly about hundreds of applications and not hearing back. They talk to us about childcare, so much about childcare. And a lot of people at this point are talking to us about COVID fears for their self and for the people they take care of. The stories that people write us are laced with desperation around, “I don’t want to hurt someone in my family to go make a wage” that doesn’t even keep their family alive, and then they have to take the risk of COVID.
Here are the most recent three things that people told us. Someone wrote, “At this point, the choice is I might die from COVID, or I might die from the lack of basic needs.” Someone wrote, “In order to keep a roof over my head and food to eat, that’s why these benefits have to be extended.” That’s not because they don’t wanna go back to work; its basic needs. And the last person wrote, “It’s politicized. I can’t go out and get a job because people won’t even wear masks.” So, I think the things that are standing in the way aren’t a lack of wanting to work. It’s completely COVID-related fears, and the fact that it’s become politicized in such a way that demonizes the unemployed is disgusting.
VALLAS: And staying with you, Stephanie, for a moment here. And thank you for sharing that with us. And of course, 90 percent of the stories you’ve received being from women, right? It tracks so perfectly with what Rebecca was reminding us of before: this being what’s often been called the “she-cession” in terms of women and particularly women of color being so disproportionately impacted.
But we haven’t yet discussed, and I think we would be remiss if we did not discuss as part of this conversation, the struggles of workers who are eligible and have been eligible for unemployment insurance, particularly with these expansions that have now expired, but who were unable to get benefits. And you put it before, and I wanna repeat your wording ‘cause I feel like it just so thoroughly captures what’s been going on. It’s not that the system is broken. It’s by design. Talk a little bit about some of the challenges that folks have had in accessing unemployment insurance even if they’re eligible, many of which have unfortunately been the result of choices by state policymakers, many of which have been conservative and who have not been themselves huge friends to the unemployment insurance program.
FREED: Yes, we hear a lot from people who aren’t able to access the programs who are eligible, and, of course, people who aren’t eligible because of the way the programs are designed. But something that Rebecca was noting that is one of the hardest parts of running this organization is that people will reach out to us with their difficulties in accessing benefits, and we can’t help because it’s all these separate state systems. We can’t say that, “This is the way you go through the process, and this is the way you appeal something, or this is the way you prove income,” because everyone does it differently. And that’s also on purpose. That is that they don’t wanna make it easy. And as a person who has faced the unemployment system myself, I certainly had an okay time and live in a place of privilege with that. But recently, I couldn’t get back on them after an expiration or something like that. And you can’t get through to anyone. They make it impossible for anyone to actually speak to a human. They have, it’s people just sit in this…. Unemployed people are spending all of their time not working, working to either advocate for actually receiving benefits or trying to navigate the system and fight the system to actually be paid benefits that they are owed.
VALLAS: And Rebecca, I wanna bring you in on this point as well, given that the National Employment Law Project has also been one of the major voices in trying to ring alarm bells, even prior to the pandemic, about how difficult it can be to access unemployment insurance even if a worker is eligible. Some of this really came to light early on in the pandemic when we saw stories of workers across the country who were, as Stephanie was describing, calling phone numbers and trying to get through online and running into all kinds of barriers. Perhaps the best-known story of the pandemic, when it comes to unemployment insurance not being something that workers who were eligible had been able to access, came from Florida when it came to light last year, early in the pandemic, that Republican state officials had actually on purpose designed an online system that they wanted to make it very hard to access so they could keep the unemployment insurance numbers low. It was very much driven by politics. And all of that came out. It got a lot of attention in particular in Florida. But NELP was really one of the groups saying, “Guys, this is the tip of the iceberg.” Bureaucratic disentitlement has been the name of the game in lots of states when it comes to unemployment insurance. Talk a little bit about that broader picture of access barriers and how that connects to some of the fixes that you have been fighting to see put in place.
DIXON: So, as Stephanie mentioned, there are states who look at this program as something that folks don’t deserve. And so, they try to create lots of bureaucratic obstacles, including in the case of Florida, which probably is the worst one we’ve seen. And we did for years advocate and try to call attention to what Florida was doing when times were technically good, right? And what we’ve been seeing lately, not just for Florida, but for all the states, is really—well, not all of them—but a lot of the states have in the past recession went into debt because they didn’t forward fund. So, they weren’t funding their unemployment insurance benefits system when times were good, and so they didn’t have a trust fund built up to actually pay out benefits when times are bad. And so, being in debt has then driven them to cut benefits and to create obstacles. So, whether that’s technical obstacles or whether that’s obstacles more like different requirements that end up with more workers being disqualified.
And so, in the case of Florida and other states where there are issues with the technology, that’s been a long problem. In a lot of the states, the technology that runs the unemployment insurance payment system is more than 25 years old. And none of us are interacting within our private life any kind of computer system for our banking or any of those things that is 25 years old. So, the lack of investment from the federal government to actually resource these systems and then also to make sure that their guidance is there so that they’re customer-centered, right? So that when we design a system, we’re actually trying to determine how are workers gonna navigate it, and make it easier to navigate.
So, there are the long-term fixes of updating these systems and doing it in a way that centers workers, that thinks about the digital divide, that takes into account that for Black and Latinx families, they’re less likely to have a computer in the home or access to high-speed Internet. And so, if they’re accessing it through their phone, making sure that the sites are optimized for that is important, but so, there are the long-term fixes.
But there are short-term fixes that states have been implementing and can be implemented right now, such as making sure that the systems are open 24 hours a day online. So, earlier in the pandemic, some states were shutting down their system to apply at 5:00 p.m. And then also, states can do things like make it easier for folks to get password resets. So, folks were having to wait for those to come in the mail. And so, there are things that can be done right now. But the long-term fix is to make a deep investment in this technology. And I think that starts with a belief that we wanna have a robust social insurance system in this country so that people are secure between jobs, too, and not just in jobs.
VALLAS: And in the last few minutes that we have, I’d really love to focus on where things stand right now with the legislation that you mentioned, Rebecca, and which I mentioned up top, often called “Build Back Better.” And there’s an element of that legislative push, which is a bill that’s being put together by Democrats. We’ve talked a lot on this show about the budget reconciliation process as an avenue for getting something done only with Democratic votes in this moment when Democrats theoretically have enough votes to be able to legislate.
Talk to me, Rebecca—and I’m gonna bring in Andy and Stephanie as well for sort of a final lightning round here to close us out—about what the specific reforms are that NELP and other workers’ advocates are fighting to see included in the reconciliation bill. Words like “coverage” and “duration” and “benefit adequacy” all get kind of thrown around, and this stuff can seem somewhat wonky to folks who are not deep UI experts. But it’s so incredibly important that we not see UI forgotten in this package is really what we’re hearing from all of you and from many progressive advocates as well now realizing that UI is at risk of being forgotten in this package. And Rebecca, I’ll kick it to you first, and we’ll get to go a little bit around the horn here.
DIXON: Sure. I think I will focus my comments on duration. So, when we say duration, it’s important to know that the average unemployment spell when there’s not in a pandemic may be something like 16 weeks for the average worker. But when we look at workers of color, so Black and Latinx workers, they tend to have a higher unemployment duration. So, they tend to be more likely to be out of work for 6 months or longer. So, we have some states that, after the last recession, actually moved from a 26-week standard to a, in some cases, as low as a 12-week standard.
And so, if you are in a state that has done that and you are a Black worker and you are more likely to be unemployed for a longer period of time, there’s definitely a racial impact to making the program less secure over time when we know that workers have different experiences with the labor market. And that is really rooted in structural racism and the way that our labor market is not even. And so, our recoveries are not even, and the pain is not spread evenly. So, one of the things that’s most important to do is to make sure that every state pays the 26-week standard, so that workers are not subject to this patchwork depending on where they happen to be when they’re unemployed, which state they happen to live in.
VALLAS: And Andy, Rebecca spoke to duration. So, I think that’s gonna give you coverage and adequacy if you wanna pick up there with some of the things that you and others are fighting to make sure that Congress understands need to at least be represented in some kind of a down payment in this bill.
STETTNER: Yeah. First, thanks to Rebecca for always so specifically talking about why this is part of an effort to address structural racism in our economy. We’re just looking for a foothold. We can’t fix this whole system in this one bill. One piece that we’d like to have is to lower the amount you’d have to earn to get unemployment benefits. So, to so many workers that were working for a few months before the pandemic hit and could not get regular benefits, so lowering that amount. And also, to that same point, allowing people to count their more recent earnings. Typically, when you apply for unemployment benefits, your last 4-6 months of earnings don’t even count. And many people don’t get the benefits because of that reason. And about half the states have a reform that allows people to count those more recent earnings. We think that should be a requirement of the program. It’s a wonky reform called the alternate base period, but it really can help to increase coverage of lower-wage workers.
VALLAS: And Stephanie, you’re gonna get the last word, which I think is fitting here. And I’m gonna hand the mic to you to close us out with what your message and the message of the workers that you’ve been organizing, tens of thousands of workers across this country, is to our federal policymakers right now as we see this continued effort to get “Build Back Better” legislation over the finish line.
FREED: Thank you. And I will be direct because that is how workers are feeling. This whole issue has been made so political over this crisis. And in last fall, in 2020, we met with 40 senators, and we met with people on both sides of the aisle and talked to them about the unemployment insurance system. And Democrats across the board blamed Republicans for that FPUC expiring and for any resistance to unemployment reform or further extensions. And now, certainly in voters’ eyes, the Democrats are in charge. So, if we can’t find a place in this bill, if not for extensions, because honestly, the people who are still unemployed at this point are blaming the lack of an extension during Labor Day on the Democrats. And it is a scary political move to watch happen and to watch how frustrated people are and how much people don’t wanna turn out to vote anymore because they feel abandoned now. So, if we don’t see some kind of help for these people in this next bill, it is certainly not going to be able to be blamed on another side. It is going to be across the board on everybody.
VALLAS: And I think those are probably exactly the right words to end on in terms of not just what’s at stake, but also that millions of unemployed workers and underemployed workers right now are watching. They are watching what is happening in Washington anxiously, as many have been for well over a year at this point, living from cliff to cliff to cliff and wondering if more help may be on the way. Unfortunately, as of right now, it doesn’t appear that it is. But we will see if that changes in the coming weeks and months.
I’ve been speaking with Stephanie Freed, who is co-founder and executive director of an organization called ExtendPUA.org. You can find a little bit more about the organization in show notes for folks who wanna learn more and get involved. Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, better known as NELP. And we’ve got lots in our show notes from NELP as well, given their incredible work and resources on this topic. And finally, Andrew Stettner is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, my new home these days, and someone that I am honored to count a dear colleague. And we’ve got more from him as well in our show notes, including that report that I mentioned that has a lot of the history here really highlighting how unusual this moment is when it comes to policymakers’ refusal/failure to extend needed jobless relief to many, many, many unemployed workers across the country in their time of need.
Andrew, Rebecca, Stephanie, thank you so much to all of you for taking the time to join the show and for your work to ensure that this is a part of the conversation, that UI is part of the conversation and stays part of the conversation, even though many folks are really, it seems, trying to turn the page.
STETTNER: Thanks so much, guys.
FREED: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate that you guys made it a point to include workers’ voices. [upbeat theme music returns]
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your pods. And for the superfans, you can find a full archive of all past episodes and show transcripts over at TCF.org/Off-Kilter.
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