This week, Off-Kilter continues our ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare—and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work.
Our next guest in this series is Michele Evermore, a longtime leading voice fighting for America’s most marginalized workers, particularly when it comes to unemployment insurance. Michele is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and most recently served as deputy director of policy in the U.S. Department of Labor’s new Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization under President Biden. She’s also a martial artist and an avid gardener whose tomato list we should all be lucky enough to get on.
Rebecca and Michele had a far-ranging conversation about how the historic, if sadly short-lived, improvements to the U.S. unemployment insurance system went from ideas to public policies early in the COVID era; the story behind the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization and where things stand for jobless workers today; and the toxic “moral hazard” narrative that continues to hamper progressive policymaking to ensure workers have protection when they lose a job through no fault of their own. They also talked about how self-care shows up in Michele’s own life as a leader on social insurance, why she got into martial arts and how it informs her policy advocacy, and m
- Learn more about Michele’s work here and follow her on Twitter @EvermoreMichele
- And you can find Off-Kilter’s most recent episode on unemployment insurance and the cliff created by expiring COVID-era improvements here
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I talk with visionary leaders working to disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve. And this week, we’re continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders, digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, “self-care is political warfare,” and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work.
And I had a ton of fun sitting down with our next guest in this series, who is a friend and a colleague at The Century Foundation, as well as a longtime leading voice fighting for some of America’s most marginalized workers, particularly when it comes to unemployment insurance. And that’s Michele Evermore. Michele is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and most recently served as deputy director of policy in the Department of Labor’s new Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization during the first chunk of the Biden presidency. She’s also a martial artist in her spare time and an avid gardener whose tomato list I am eager to get on.
We had a far-ranging conversation about how the historic, if sadly short-lived, improvements to the U.S. unemployment insurance system went from ideas to public policy early in the COVID-19 pandemic; the story behind the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization at DOL, where Michele worked until fairly recently, and where things stand for jobless workers today; and the toxic quote-unquote “moral hazard” narrative that continues to hamper truly universal protections for workers when they lose a job through no fault of their own, something, I should note, that will happen to most of us at some point during our lives. We also talked about how self-care shows up in her own life as a leader on social insurance, why she got into martial arts and how it informs her policy advocacy, and lots more. So, without further ado, my conversation with Michele Evermore. [upbeat music break]
Michele Evermore, thank you so much for taking the time to come on Off-Kilter. I have so been looking forward to this conversation.
MICHELE EVERMORE: I am so excited to get to talk to you! Thank you for inviting me.
VALLAS: I’m excited to get to talk to you always. But I have to say I am especially excited to get to talk to you for the podcast because somehow, this is the first time that I’ve managed to rope you into this show. So, I feel like we kind of need six or seven hours based on all the things that I wanna talk to you about! But we’re gonna have to make do with just one of our humble little Off-Kilter hours. Before we get into talking about unemployment insurance and self-care as political warfare and really kind of situate this conversation as part of the larger stream of conversations we’ve been having about self-care as political warfare, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners. And the question I often ask folks to kick off is, how do you come to this work? I know you as really one of the nation’s leading experts on unemployment insurance and so much more. But how’d you get into this type of work? Where is your, where’s your journey take you that you wanna share?
EVERMORE: Sure! So, I’ve only been intensely focused on unemployment insurance since about 2018. I started off on the Hill, and my first position on the Hill, I really thought I came to D.C. because of inequality, really. Income disparity has been an obsession of mine. And I first got engaged in economic policy working for Senator Harkin, thinking, okay, if we just focus on this economic policy, we’re gonna fix everything. And it came to my 20-something-year-old self that the bedrock for all of that was really workers fighting for their rights. And so, then I gravitated toward labor policy. I moved into labor movement stuff. And so, I’ve worked for a couple of unions and went to the UMass Labor Center. And so, that’s why I come at unemployment insurance from a very worker power promotion perspective.
VALLAS: I love that. And I have to say, I was reminded when I was prepping for this conversation, which mostly entailed just sort of thinking back to some of my favorite work of yours and ways that I’ve known you and some of the ways that you show up as a leader in this field, I actually found an old text message thread that we had [laughs] where I said something, and I said that you were a huge boss. And then you responded, and you were like, “I’m not a boss! I’m a worker!” [laughs]
VALLAS: Which I feel like is perfectly on brand for what you just shared about how you come to this work. But most recently before you came over to The Century Foundation—and you’ve been affiliated with the TCF for not a super different amount of time from me. You came after, you came over shortly after I did—you spent the first chunk of the Biden presidency over at the Department of Labor, and you were doing labor work in what was called the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization. That was actually a brand new, newly formed office within the Department of Labor. Talk a little bit about some of the work that you did there and why that office was formed. And I know a lot of that work that you did there actually was an outgrowth of work that you had done previously, which we’ll talk about too. But talk a little bit about your time at DOL.
EVERMORE: Sure. So, I started actually at the Employment and Training Administration. Well, even before that, I served on the transition. And so, one of the day-one things that we worked on was ensuring that people can refuse unsafe work at the height of the pandemic, which is something I am really proud to have been involved with. But shortly after taking the position, in March of 2021, Congress appropriated $2 billion to the Department of Labor to fix the unemployment insurance system and with three goals that we had to adhere to, which were fight fraud, promote equity, and improve timeliness. And so, basically, we had to figure out how to best allocate that $2 billion, considering that improving unemployment insurance is a much bigger task. You know, $2 billion is an awful lot of money, but the problems with unemployment insurance are even bigger. So, figuring out how to get the best bang for that money was a real challenge, and we realized it was sort of a cross-departmental issue. So, the Secretary created the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization to manage the spending of that funding.
VALLAS: And so, that was the story behind that office. And I remember when it was actually announced that it was happening, I mean, it was like a cheer sort of went up throughout the advocates community of folks who had been working on unemployment insurance for a long time, and including a whole bunch of legal aid lawyers I know across the country who were all saying, “Oh my God. This is so long overdue.” Would you talk, while we’re staying on that Department of Labor side of things for just a moment, would you maybe share a little bit of like a pull back the curtain? What happens within the federal government, what happens within that office when it comes to unemployment insurance? What is the goal of that office? And why was it in many ways something of sort of a dream job to get to go and be there as someone who, like you have, has spent as much of your life as you have working on strengthening social insurance?
EVERMORE: Yeah. So, the process of spending money in the government is very arcane, and it involves making assumptions about how much you’re gonna have to spend on personnel to run things. It involves a long series of approvals going back and forth between the White House and the Office of Management and Budget to get these plans approved. It was a months’ long process, and we had to talk about whether or not any of the ideas, there were a lot of ideas that we had about how to spend the money. And we really had to focus on the things that would take us the farthest and demonstrate the most dramatic successes. And I will tell you, one of the things that we thought of that I think now is one of the things I’m most proud of being involved with, although I don’t love the name, [laughs] is these tiger teams we created. They were based on a couple of states had brought in strike teams, they called them at the time, to just really do a whole system evaluation and find out where people were getting hung up and why they were getting hung up and basically pull out those blockers and put in better checks. And they’ve been successful.
So, we built these tiger teams to go in and really do these thorough audits of state systems. And on these teams are UI subject matter experts, technical experts, fraud experts, equity experts, and people who understand q theory or pushing people through a process quickly. And they’ve now been deployed to most states, and we’re just seeing so many interesting things happening with regard to access and plain language translation and translation services and just so many positive things coming out of that.
The other thing that I’m really excited about were the equity grants. We did grants in an entirely different way than are ordinarily done for unemployment insurance. We actually went to states and said, “You have to give us a plan that we approve.” Usually, unemployment insurance grants go out sort of per formula. People fill out a form, they get the money, and then they undergo sort of auditing about how they spent it. This time we did it on the front end. We asked states, “What do you plan to do? How is this really going to advance equity? And how are you going to demonstrate that?” So, we really made states explain how they were moving the bar on equity. And so far, 40 states have come in and gotten the money. And I’m also really excited about not just the things that states are doing, but the conversation that was started around equity as a result of those grants.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I feel like that’s actually just a really good segue way into connecting and bridging some of the work that you’ve done as an advocate and a policy wonk outside of government with some of the work that you’re describing getting the opportunity to do inside government within that office of UI modernization and that home base of the Department of Labor. A lot of the work that you’re describing right now, and also, a lot of the pieces as well that we might be able to get into, that you might take us to was actually a direct outgrowth of work that you had done at the National Employment Law Project, better known in Washington circles as NELP, an organization I have a lot of love for and have had the privilege of getting to work with at various points throughout my career. And a lot of the work that you were doing at NELP was really, it was vision work. It was you were visioning. You were dreaming about a more robust, a more equitable, a more accessible unemployment insurance system for workers when we hit that moment of not being able to find work and needing a social insurance backstop to fall back on to support ourselves and our families.
Tell the story, if you would, of how that work started at the think tank or the advocacy organization level—whatever NELP wants to call itself—and then ultimately, how it ended up actually shaping federal policy. And I don’t wanna suggest, as I ask this question, that somehow it was all just you. You were obviously part of a larger effort as well, and there’s other folks who deserve a lot of credit, too. But you were really one of the linchpins in the policy development and then policy integration phases of what we saw happen early in the Biden administration. And I feel like it’s extra fun to get to hear someone talk about what it was like to do the vision work outside government and then to actually get to bring it into implementation inside government. So, I’d love to give you the opportunity to tell a little bit of that story.
EVERMORE: Sure. So, even taking a step back from NELP and why I was so excited to join NELP. Prior to joining NELP, I was really starting to—both at the University of Massachusetts Labor Center and then later as I worked for SEIU 1199—I had spent a lot of time researching this race to the bottom between states. There’s sort of two ways that people think economic growth happens. One is you build really good infrastructure, really good social infrastructure. You have nice parks and open spaces and good education, and that’s what will create a good economic growth environment. And there are other places that say, no, the best way to grow the economy is to have low labor standards and a terrible safety net and don’t invest in education, and the rich people can live in their gated communities and everybody else can suffer, and that’s the way that we’ll lure businesses into our states. And I was looking at sort of like, what are the policies that best exemplify this race to the bottom?
And I have to say that unemployment insurance is probably the most stark. And I started reading some of the work that NELP was doing. George Wentworth published this really amazing paper called Closing Doors on the Unemployed, and other folks in the org were doing such great work around explaining the gap here and how it’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger between states. Unemployment insurance is perhaps the place where there’s the most room for states to really do things differently, and I didn’t like that. So, I went to work for NELP! And I got to really dig in more and more and actually get involved in some of these state fights, spending a lot of time talking to folks in low bar states and high bar states. So, spending time working with Florida, also spending time working with Washington State, which has some of the best benefits, and they keep trying to make it better, right?
VALLAS: And you’re mentioning Florida as being one of the worst, which maybe people will remember from early in the pandemic, but certainly deserves lifting back up again as well.
EVERMORE: Yeah. So, right after the Great Recession, states kind of got in a competition with each other to see who could reduce benefits the most. And I think Florida and North Carolina were tied for the win there. Florida reduced benefits to only 12 weeks of duration, and actually at the beginning, right at the beginning of the recovery, they added a 45-question skills assessment that you had to fill out before you could even get to the application. The U.S. Department of Labor cited them for violating civil rights standards. They deliberately made the system very hard to get into. So, of course, when the pandemic hit, the computers entirely crashed, and people had to go actually stand in line in March 2020 and April 2020 for unemployment insurance applications back before we had protections in place for COVID transmission. It was just unbelievably a broken system. And so, yeah, that’s a state that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about improving. As a matter of fact, the nominee to run the Employment and Training Administration is a state senator, José Javier Rodríguez, who I worked closely with during the pandemic on trying to come up with ways to fix Florida’s very broken system. But yeah, that’s a state that I spent a lot of time thinking about.
VALLAS: Well, and just on that race to the bottom point as well, right, ‘cause you made the point that something you had realized early on in some of your work was how much space there was for states to do their own thing rather than being held to some level of federal standards to ensure basic minimum protections for people. And Florida really does rise to that, well, I was gonna say top of the heap, but it really should be the bottom, sort of the bottom of the heap when it comes to some of the most egregious behavior that we’ve seen. So, I don’t mean to make this conversation all into Florida, but it did really stick in my brain in a way that’s coming through for me now as we’re having this conversation. Early in the pandemic, some of what came out, if I’m remembering correctly, was actually that there had been political efforts within the Florida governor’s office to keep the unemployment quote-unquote “rolls” low for political reasons, to make it look like the state had a better economic picture than it really did. And, of course, we had Governor DeSantis benefiting from that, if that’s how you wanna think about the politics there. But that ends up being just such a great case study of what happens when states have a policy landscape that creates an opportunity to make that kind of race to the bottom effort. So, keep going with your story, but I do think that Florida deserves to be called out here with special volume.
EVERMORE: Well, and it’s so backwards to think that reducing unemployment is good for the economy. Because during the pandemic, the IMF found that for every dollar spent in unemployment insurance benefits, it generated $1.93 in economic activity, right? Giving money to people who are going to spend it right away is not just moral, it’s a good [chuckles] economic stimulator. That’s why unemployment insurance always comes up during downturns as being a key priority. And to me, duration of benefits, the number of weeks that people are eligible for benefits, is one of the most important equity issues. So, when—maybe we’ll pivot a little bit away from Florida and blame some other bad states—but right after that, the first state to begin cutting duration of benefits was Michigan. And Michigan reduced benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks, right early in 2011. And the average duration of unemployment for Black workers in Michigan at that time was 27 weeks. The average duration of unemployment for white workers in Michigan at that time was 19 weeks. So, this is a policy that has a specifically racist application. And we wonder why Flint and Detroit didn’t recover so well from the Great Recession. It’s because they didn’t have this economic tool that helps stabilize the economy. It’s amazing to me.
VALLAS: Well, and that ends up being, I think, a great segue way back into sort of allowing you to tell some of the story of well, what were some of the ideas that you and others were starting to develop before you came into the Biden administration and before the 2020 election, but also before the pandemic. That then ended up actually getting to have a sort of a front row seat within federal government priorities. So, I don’t mean to make this all into a blame bad states piece, but I do feel like that’s actually a really helpful grounding in helping us remember what was the picture heading into the pandemic, and what was the state of affairs when it comes to that kind of race to the bottom that states were all starting to engage in. So, take us back to the work you were doing leading up to your time at NELP and then some of the ideas that you ended up having a chance to bring over into DOL.
EVERMORE: Yeah. So, well, I will say that I’m not gonna take credit for some of the great ideas around how we need to create a floor for unemployment insurance. Some of the ideas that were in sort of my master list of unemployment insurance reforms, absolutely none of them were really all that new or revolutionary. They go back to the 1980 bipartisan recommendations or the 1996 bipartisan recommendations. Some of the stuff that looks far left now was not historically. So, here I am still advocating for some of these ideas that Republicans signed off on when I was in kindergarten, [laughs] you know? So, just to give some perspective here. But what we sort of did during the pandemic is there are three dimensions of ways that states have reduced benefits. Number one, they reduce the benefit level, or they kept the maximum benefit level the same for decades. Two, they cut people out of access. They change the definition of an employee, or they change conditions that would qualify somebody for unemployment insurance. So, they cut benefits, they cut access, and they cut duration, right? That was a big trend that we saw in the 2010s.
So, in order to solve for that, in the pandemic, we added $600 to the weekly benefit. The way that that was arrived at is the average weekly wage was around $970 a week. The average weekly benefit was around $370. The difference is $600. We’ll give everybody $600 to get people to roughly 100 percent. The second thing was adding a whole new program for people who wouldn’t have been eligible for unemployment insurance called pandemic unemployment assistance. And about half the people who got a benefit during the pandemic got it through PUA, which tells you, boy, if there wasn’t a pandemic, if there wasn’t that program, about half the people who got a benefit in 2020 and 2021 would’ve just been left out. They would’ve just gone hungry. And the third thing was just increasing the number of weeks that people are eligible, which is something that happens almost every time there’s a big economic downturn. And that’s because the automatic way that benefits increase during a downturn takes a really long time and is not very efficient or effective.
VALLAS: Now, all of the improvements that you just mentioned—and there’s I mean, we could do an entire episode just breaking them all down and talking about how many more people were helped and all the lessons that we learned from that period of time—but all of the improvements that you mentioned, if I’ve got my facts straight, are actually really good policy not just to have in a pandemic, but to have as features that would describe a much stronger, much more robust, much more equitable, and accessible unemployment protection system in a country as wealthy as ours that has the space and the opportunity to run a program like that. But unfortunately, a lot of the improvements were actually very short lived, and we saw a lot of them expire.
I’ve got Andy Stettner’s voice ringing in my head right now because the last time that we talked about unemployment insurance in depth on this podcast was with Andy Stettner and others right at the moment— And I should note, Andy Stettner was a senior fellow at The Century Foundation until he sort of traded places with you and went over to the Department of Labor. So, that’s why I’m mentioning Andy. But the last time that we were talking about unemployment insurance in that context was in a moment when we were about to see millions of jobless workers basically get pushed over a cliff because those pandemic-era extensions and expansions were about to be allowed to expire. Talk a little bit about where things stand with unemployment insurance today. What are workers facing today? What’s the picture now? We got to hear just now about some of the wonderful improvements you were describing in the sort of three buckets that the improvements fell into. But catch us up to present day. What’s the picture for a jobless worker today?
EVERMORE: Really, we’re seeing the gaps that started in the 2010s infect more states. So, we’ve seen benefits duration reduced and benefit levels reduced in Kentucky, Iowa. Missouri went down to just eight weeks of benefit eligibility! And here’s where I’m concerned. This is what happens with unemployment insurance. So, everybody cares about unemployed people at the start of an economic downturn. There’s a great deal of compassion, and we have to do something, and we have to expand benefits temporarily. And by the end of an economic downturn, everybody’s blaming the unemployed people for the economy. And we saw that play out exactly like it always has during the pandemic. And so, then at the end of a downturn, there’s this push to cut benefits further. And this is why benefits have been eroding slowly for decades now, really. And it doesn’t matter to the unemployed person whether, you know, if they got fired during a crisis or not during a crisis. The landlord doesn’t care. They’re gonna have to pay their bills somehow. And the fact that we really don’t care about people who lose work through no fault of their own outside of emergencies is a huge problem. To them, the day that they lose their job is still the worst day of their life.
VALLAS: Yeah, and that’s right, Michele. And as you were speaking, the phrase that was pinging in my brain is a phrase that often gets used in debates around unemployment insurance moments like upticks in unemployment or downturns in the economy, and that phrase is “moral hazard.” I feel like that’s the buzzword that always comes up. You have these sort of right-wing labor economists who all wanna say, “Oh! But if we have unemployment insurance and if it’s too easy to get, then the moral hazard is that people are gonna just want to get benefits, and they’re not gonna wanna work.” How do you—just ‘cause that’s coming up now, and I feel like it’s implicit in some of what you were just saying—how do you respond to those types of claims? If I’m throwing up the moral hazard strawman, and he gets to be here with us for just a minute of this podcast, how do you respond to that way of thinking?
EVERMORE: I hate that term so much, as you might imagine. What we saw during the pandemic, every single economist who looked at incentives to return to work found that the unemployment insurance benefit really didn’t disincentivize people from taking jobs. A lot of people weren’t taking jobs because there wasn’t a suitable, safe job that they were qualified for, for them to take. And that’s the bottom line. People, when you talk to them, would much rather work than get an unemployment insurance benefit. The unemployment insurance benefit generally replaces a quarter to half of what a person was making before. That’s not enough to incentivize people to not accept good work. It’s temporary. So, people know that they want stability. They want something that they can count on in the future. Unemployment insurance also, it doesn’t come with health benefits or a pension or a 401(k) match or any of those other things that you get through employment. People would much rather take work than not. During the height of the pandemic when everybody was saying, “Oh, this $600 is causing a windfall for people,” I, along with Marokey Sawa, actually figured in fringe benefits. And they really weren’t getting more than if they’d had a job, even with that seemingly big $600 a week added to their weekly benefit.
VALLAS: Yeah. The concept of moral hazard has always just struck me as a worldview that only is possible if someone thinks about a program like unemployment insurance as for other people and not for them and their loved ones and their friends and their family. If you start from the place of what do I want to be in place so that I’m protected, so my family is protected, so that people I care about are protected, then you want a robust unemployment insurance program to be there for you in a time of losing a job. But if somehow, you’re thinking about it not being there for you because you’re super privileged and well off, and it’s just not a concern that you have on a personal level, then you’re making policy for other people. And that’s where it ends up being a conversation that leaves space for something like moral hazard. I wanted to do this brief digression just because some of the conversations that we’ve had on Off-Kilter have been spaces for bringing forward unconscious limiting beliefs that we as a collective are holding onto, but that we need to make visible and shine a light on and say it is time for us to release these particular and pernicious limiting beliefs for us to be able to have the space to build the policy landscape that we know is actually in all of our best interest as a collective. And moral hazard really does end up very high on that list for me in terms of some of the most pernicious unconscious limiting beliefs that we as a collective are still holding onto.
I wanna transition our conversation, Michele, into why are we talking about these issues in the context of an ongoing conversation about self-care, and in particular, the interrogation that we’ve been doing on Off-Kilter of Audre Lorde’s famous words about self-care being political warfare. And so, I wanna turn it next to you to give you a chance to share any thoughts that you have and any reflections that you’ve got around how social insurance, and how unemployment insurance in particular, fit into a conversation about self-care. We, as this series has been going on over the course of the past several months, we’ve been really trying to bridge the micro and the macro, talking about, yes, individual self-care practices, but also what are the systemic and policy failures and barriers that we have that are leaving basic self-care and even dignity out of reach for huge numbers of people in this country. So, what are your thoughts about how social insurance and UI fit into that larger conversation about self-care?
EVERMORE: I think people, I wish more people understood unemployment insurance to be self-care because in normal times, about three quarters of people who become unemployed don’t even bother to apply for unemployment insurance. And a lot of times it’s ‘cause people have told them, “This isn’t a program for you. You’re not gonna be eligible.” And the way that unemployment insurance taxation works is the employer is charged more for every former employee who gets a benefit. And so, very often, employers will tell people, “Don’t go apply for unemployment insurance. You’re not going to get it.” Some people really do feel like applying for unemployment insurance is, you know, there’s a stigma, and they don’t wanna think of themselves as the kind of person who gets an unemployment insurance benefit. But let me tell you, unemployment insurance is insurance. If I crash my car, I’m not gonna say, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t wanna be one of those people that gets car insurance,” right? It’s insurance. So, it’s really there for these times in life when unforeseen things happen, when you encounter a challenge. It’s there to help hold you up a little bit. And yeah, yeah.
I also would observe, working on unemployment insurance, it’s really hard for that to not break you. It’s a depressing topic, right? You’re engaged in this really depressing thing all day, every day. So, it’s one of those issues that when you’re involved with it, you need a good circle of people. You need a strong support network. And the UI community is just, they are the best people we have. We have this really nice network on Twitter where we go lift each other up. And Andy has been key to keeping me sane, you know? Anyway, I think I’ve strayed pretty far from the question, but. [laughs] So.
VALLAS: Not at all, no. It’s actually a perfect segue into the next chunk of, I think, where we wanna go with this. But I love it where you started to bridge, right, is obviously, having enough resources to be able to meet basic needs is one very basic level of self-care. It isn’t quite the dimension of self-care being political warfare that Audre Lorde takes us to, which is more the domain of what is often referred to as radical self-care. And I’ll send folks back to earlier episodes in the series, including the kick-off in January with Aisha Nyandoro for some of that sort of definitional work. But I really love the point you’re making, Michele, about some of the stigma that exists that can actually itself be a barrier to people accessing programs that are very much there for all of us or are supposed to be there for all of us in our time of need. And so, the comparison to car insurance, for example, I find that to be very profound and very powerful. It’s not a type of insurance that you hear people ever take issue with accessing. And I’ll note unemployment insurance is somewhat similar to disability insurance in some ways with regard to some of the stigma that exists that doesn’t exist, for example, for Social Security retirement benefits. So, we do have some of these hierarchies to be aware of and to really try to do our part to dismantle culturally as another dimension of the policy work that we do.
But where you started to take us was some of how you show up for yourself in the course of doing this work, because it can be incredibly disheartening, and it can be incredibly depressing, especially when what you’re doing is bordering on Sisyphean, of pushing that boulder up the hill to try to get to the moments where there is a political opening to take ideas that have, as you noted before, been around since, for example, the ‘80s but haven’t seen the light of day policy-wise to move from being an idea into becoming a law or a public policy that gets implemented. You started to talk about community being really important for you and that the unemployment insurance community is a part of your own self-care. But I wanna give you the chance to bring in some other self-care practices that you’ve found over the years that you found are important for you and that are important not just for your well-being and for your health, but for your success in this work, for your sustainability in this work. You’ve been doing this work for quite some time now. Talk a little bit about what self-care looks like for you and anything in addition to community that you wanna bring in.
EVERMORE: Some of it, right, there are periods where you’re just going to be working quite a bit, and you’re not gonna really get that much of a break. And it’s not gonna be easy when your inbox is full of people who are suffering to just shut down your computer and walk away. So, you have to think about ways to make your environment nice so that at least you’ve got these nice vibes coming in. So, I sometimes work from my porch, sometimes work near a cozy fire. Just yesterday I went out, and I planted a whole lot of lavender right around my porch so that if I do find myself working a lot, there’s this nice breeze that comes in that smells of lavender. You have to think about ways to even make times you’re working feel less like work.
But outside of that, trying to figure out how to prioritize and get some time away is really good. My primary mode of making life nice for myself is gardening, and I grow so much food. Frankly, Connecticut is, around August, full of tomatoes. All of my friends get baskets of tomatoes! I tend to overshoot on my tomato yield. But I also grow all kinds of fresh vegetables. And so, again, if you can walk out to the garden and pick your lunch and just throw it in a pan and have some nice fresh food in the middle of the day, that kind of thing, really. And the act of putting seeds in dirt and creating life, that makes me so happy. I feel like a god when I can, [laughs] when I can put a seed in some dirt, and in a few months, it’s food. [laughs] It’s like, it seems like magic to me.
I also have to say that one of the things that was hardest for me during the administration particularly, you open up your computer and start with back-to-back meetings at 8:30 in the morning, and you’re in meetings until maybe 6:00 at night. And then you’ve got to edit documents and review things. And you find yourself going through an entire day and not thinking any of your own thoughts. All of your brain is going into work, and your work quality starts to deteriorate. And so, even when I’m very, very low energy now, I try and take some time to unplug and do something where I’m forced to think about something else that’s more fun. And for me, that’s a lot of times listening to books on tape or podcasts while playing video games. [chuckles] I know that sounds kind of childish, but I love video games, particularly fantasy video games, because it’s just like an entirely different world and an entirely different set of grooves in your brain that you’re using, if that makes any sense.
VALLAS: Oh, it makes total sense. And I have to say A, I would like to get on your tomato list.
VALLAS: And B, as you were talking, I mean, actually two things came through for me that were really, really interesting that connect some of what you just said to also some of what I think makes you quite a magical person, not just in your self-care approaches but also in the policy work that you do. You were describing gardening and planting seeds, and that that feels like magic to you. Do you ever think about the policy work that you do as its own form of gardening, where you’re planting the seeds, and then you’re actually doing the work to co-create them into reality?
EVERMORE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you said it before, right? A lot of this stuff is very Sisyphean, and you get a lot of this like, “Why are you focused on UI reform when it’s not gonna happen this year?” And it’s like, well, the only way anything good has ever happened is through struggle for years. No struggle, no progress, right? Frederick Douglass really said it better than that. [laughs] But it was sort of our mantra at 1199: No struggle, no progress. You have to like, you have to find beauty in the struggle and, yeah, it is. Then it stops feeling so impossible. And when it stops feeling impossible, then it becomes possible.
VALLAS: I love that. And the other thing that came through for me as you were speaking about your self-care practices before is I have to say no part of me is surprised to hear that you have a secret life of fantasy video games as part of what you’re plugged into because you are a person who is, at least the way that I experience you, you’re a dreamer. You’re a visionary. You’re a person who likes to transport yourself to a realm that doesn’t exist yet, at least not here, and then figure out how we can make this society that we’re living in more like that fantasy realm. We talk sometimes on this show about truly visionary public policy work and advocacy being very connected to science fiction, as Octavia Butler and adrienne maree brown and others have observed. I’m curious if you ever think about your interest in fantasy, whether that comes through in video games or books or movies or other realms for you, as being sort of training in some ways or as being connected to the way that you engage with policy work?
EVERMORE: Yeah, I think, well, I think this was a theme in one of your other podcasts, but you kind of have to be a time traveler, right? In order to do this work, you have to sort of live in the future, and you sort of have to be thinking, right, about what it’s gonna look like when you’re done. Yeah. So. Yeah, I think…. Sorry. [laughs] A thought was in my head, and it just left. I’m sorry about that.
VALLAS: No, that’s okay. And no, it was. We did have an episode a number of weeks ago with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice, who’re the co-founders of Liberation in a Generation, talking about time travel as a tool for self-care, but also as an advocacy strategy. And yeah, that is a lot of how I think about this work, that we’re trying to vision a future that doesn’t exist yet so that we can then work backwards from that and think about how do we create conditions for that future to become true? So, yeah, I don’t know. I love hearing you bring in that fantasy is part of your life, whether it’s video games or other entry points.
But Michele, another piece of your life I happen to know is part of you, and so I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it into this conversation and especially as we’re talking about bridges between your spare time and how you show up as a policy advocate is, you are a martial artist. This was something I actually got to learn about you at a Century Foundation holiday party where we were all doing fun facts, and we had to guess who was which thing. And so, that was how I got to learn that about you. How did you get into martial arts? And I’m curious if you see that practice informing the policy and advocacy and social justice work that you do.
EVERMORE: So, this is gonna sound silly, but when I was a kid, I used to watch martial arts movies with my dad every Sunday afternoon. And I just like, on some level, I just I love Jackie Chan. He’s my favorite. [laughs] And so, I wanted to be able to move like that, right? And then I started training in martial arts and realized it’s so much more than that. You meet the nicest people you could ever imagine training martial arts. If you can trust somebody to punch you in the face and not hurt you, that’s a buddy for life, [giggles] you know? I ended up bonding so much with the people that I used to train with because you have to put yourself in a physically dangerous situation. Training martial arts is very dangerous, and you could get hurt very easily. And you have to have this trust and camaraderie with your, with the people that you’re training with. And it really does become almost spiritual in and of itself.
So, I started out training, well, I trained Aikido many years ago, but then I got back into it with Krav Maga and then transitioned into Muay Thai and then Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I will tell you one of the, I wish I would’ve started with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It’s very, very thinky. People call it sort of physical chess ‘cause you really have to be thinking three moves down the road from whatever somebody is, whatever position you’re in at the moment. It’s delightfully thinky, and yet it’s also a grappling art, so you don’t have to pull anything. If you’re sparring with somebody in sort of a striking art, you have to be very careful that you don’t actually hit somebody with your full strength, or that’s bad. You can’t do that every day. But in grappling, you can actually do the full move and be relatively certain you’re not gonna cause permanent damage. And so, you’re really doing it when you’re training it. But it’s so much fun, and the people who do it are such great people.
VALLAS: Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from that practice and from learning those types of arts that you find yourself applying as sort of a modern-day peaceful warrior in the work that you do?
EVERMORE: There is definitely an endurance factor that has gotten me through the last three years. Really, you are training endurance when you’re, when you’re, more than anything. Yeah, one thing they say about a three-round fight is the first round is technical skills, the second round is endurance, and the third round is hard. And I feel like there’s just so much… so much heart that has gone into the last few rounds of unemployment insurance work that yeah, I think that it really trains you in a certain mentality, I guess, about sticking with things, not giving up, and recognizing that sometimes things are hard, and life is going to kick you in the head. [laughs] And that’s okay. You roll with it and figure out how to dodge better next time.
VALLAS: I love that. And just so, you know, fair warning to anyone out there who meets you in real life, this is why I refer to you as a boss, even if you’re a worker! You are someone who no one should mess around with on any level.
So, Michele, I wanna just bring in for a moment here another piece of your training over the years that I found really interesting when I was prepping for this episode because I was reading your bio and other things, kind of getting a sense of who is Michele Evermore at dimensions that maybe I was not familiar with. And I learned that you have a bachelor’s degree in something called interpersonal rhetoric. What is that? And do you find that it’s something that you work with today? Does it inform your work today in any way?
EVERMORE: So, yeah, really, it’s a degree in public speaking, and the university titles it interpersonal rhetoric and communication because there are courses around communicating in the workplace and things like that. But really, it’s public speaking and persuasion. And I feel like if you don’t know what to do in college, get a degree in persuasion. Understand how to speak to people in a way that will help them think about things differently. I can’t overstate how much that is applicable to any other field. In anything you do, you’re gonna have to convince people to think a different way to do things differently.
I mean, some of the work that I’m doing right now is around technology modernization. And one wouldn’t think that programing computers to do things is something that requires a lot of persuasion, but actually, it does. To convince people to move from the old way of programing benefits to a new, agile, modern way is a real exercise and communication and persuasion. So, yeah, I just, I think that thinking about— And it also forces you to think about how other people think. And it really helps me turn down the volume in situations where I’m needing to convince somebody of something who doesn’t agree with me and respecting where they’re coming from on big and little, in big and little ways. And it also helps you to understand that people are coming from different perspectives, and those perspectives are legitimate, and in some way, right? And recognizing the humanity in the humans that you’re dealing with all day, every day is really important. And yeah, I think that that comes through in learning persuasion.
VALLAS: Yeah, and particularly that point about figuring out and thinking about how to communicate with people, and ideally, given the business that you’re in, how to persuade people who don’t already agree with you or who maybe who don’t already see the world the way that you do. I find that to be such an important point, given that otherwise, we’re all just talking to ourselves. And that [laughing] isn’t gonna get us anywhere, right, if we’re just in the echo chambers.
So, Michele, I know we’re gonna run out of time in a few minutes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring in just a little preview of some work that I know you’ve got coming. And so, I just wanna both first note that one of the things I—and there are many things I appreciate about all the work that you’ve done over the years—but one of the things I really appreciate that you and I often talk about off the air, given a lot of the disability rights and justice work that I’ve been engaged in over the years, is that earlier in your career, you spent a number of years on Capitol Hill, as you mentioned before, working for then-Senator Tom Harkin. And Tom Harkin, one of the members of Congress who is most associated with, most sort of famous for his leadership around disability rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. And so, in addition to being a longtime proponent of achieving disability rights through law change, policy change, you’re also a member of the disability community yourself. And that’s a conversation that my team and I and you have had off the air as well. So, I’m curious if there are any things that you wanna bring into this conversation before we wrap around how your connections to the disability community have informed either your policy and advocacy work over the years or how they’ve informed your self-care practices? And then in terms of that preview, I know one of the pieces of work that I’m most excited about to get to partner on with you down the road is actually a piece of work that you’ve been looking into that is really at the intersection of disability and unemployment insurance. So, let me first see if there’s anything you wanna share around your connections to the disability community and how they show up in and inform your self-care as well as your policy and advocacy work. And then I think we’ll close with just a little sneak peek of something I know I’m gonna wanna have you back on the show to talk about once it’s out in the world.
EVERMORE: Yeah. So, it’s impossible to work for somebody for ten years who will ask you every time you talk to them, “How does this affect people with disabilities? How will this help people with disabilities?” without that just transferring over to the rest of your existence. And so, I have not spent a day thinking about policy in my professional life without thinking, okay, how does this affect people with disabilities, and how can we make it better? And unemployment insurance is so ableist. So, first of all, right, we all know that the unemployment insurance, or the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is always unacceptably high. And unemployment insurance is a primary tool for connecting people to reemployment. And so, lack of access to unemployment is just not acceptable.
And unemployment insurance is ableist in many ways. One of the core qualifications for unemployment in the law is that you have to be able and available to work. Now, how that’s interpreted can be very ableist. For example, in Michigan, there was a woman who developed a seizure disorder and couldn’t drive a bus anymore, and so the agency said she wasn’t able and available to work. Well, she’s able to do a lot of jobs, just not drive a bus. Able and available tends to disclude to a lot of people. And I think we really need to rethink how we think about that and how we employ it. So, for example, in New Jersey, instead of asking people every week, “Are you able and available to work?” they changed the question to, “Could you take a job if it was offered tomorrow?” And that’s really what the requirement is getting at without bringing in this ableist language.
The other thing is, states, in terms of just disability access on the front end, aren’t always meeting all the guidelines. And so, through, in my old job, through tiger teams and through equity grants, states have been really improving their technology so that people can access the systems better. But I also wanna take a good look at that and make some recommendations around how do you make systems and questions more accessible for people just in the application process?
VALLAS: I love all of that. And I have to say I am so excited to get to think with you and hear more of your thinking around how ableism is really built into the unemployment insurance system from its very statutory text. You were describing “able and available” being part of that. And I am just really, really excited for that conversation, given that it’s not one that I have heard others having, and it’s certainly not an area of unemployment insurance modernization that I’ve heard leaders acknowledging. So, I’m really grateful for the way that you approach your work, but also, all of what you’ve internalized from Senator Harkin and from your own experience, that now shows up in a much more inclusive and much more big tent approach to unemployment insurance, but to social insurance more broadly, bringing in and centering those kinds of disability intersections as just part of what makes your work so fantastic.
But, Michele, we’re gonna run out of time. And I know you are extremely busy, and I wanna let you go back to whatever work is on your plate today, because I know it’s gonna be important for our nation’s workers. So, thank you for all that you do. Thank you for taking the time. And I just wanna say on a personal note, this has been a really fun conversation for me, but you’re one of the people that I am, I have the most fun getting to work with at The Century Foundation and getting to have as a colleague. So, I think you’re the bee’s knees, and I’m really excited to get to share this episode with everyone, to hear just a little bit about what makes Michele Evermore such a boss, even though she’s a worker.
Michele Evermore is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where she focuses on policies that improve the nation’s social insurance programs, including, as you’ve been hearing, unemployment insurance. Michele, thank you so much for taking the time. [theme music returns]
EVERMORE: Great talking with you.
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 phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker RouRou. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do with the podcast, send us some love by hitting the subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. It really does help. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.