When lawmakers added $600 per week to unemployment benefits in March, it was a lifeline to the millions of workers who had been laid off — and would be laid off — due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, with the extra money set to expire in July and the pandemic far from over, there are real questions whether Congress will extend those federal dollars — and how hard Democrats are willing to fight Republicans who are seemingly dead-set against it.
“You cannot operate an economy when you’re going to pay people more to not work than to work,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) told HuffPost, echoing the complaint of Senate Republicans who voted unsuccessfully to cut the extra $600 from the March relief bill.
Grothman added that, when the House voted on the bill, many Republicans may have been unaware that the extra $600 would mean some workers receive more in unemployment than they earned at their jobs. He predicted Republicans would push back forcefully against an extension of those benefits.
Senate Republican leaders and the Trump administration agreed with Democrats on the $600 as part of a roughly $2 trillion package of coronavirus relief measures in March. Democrats pushed for full wage replacement for anyone who lost their job. The administration argued it would be too tricky for states to calculate exact wage replacements, so it settled on adding $600 in federal money every week to the unemployment checks paid by states. The sum is roughly the difference between the average wage and the average weekly unemployment payment.
With an extra $600 on top of the unemployment benefits that states already pay, millions of workers have been able to ride out the pandemic at home ― which is what public health experts have recommended to slow the spread of the virus.
While the expanded benefits have helped individual families, Democrats view them as a key public health measure as well, according to a spokesperson for the House Ways and Means Committee. “It allows workers to follow individual and community medical orders during the pandemic,” this Democratic aide said.
But the $600 benefit has left some businesses, now eager to reopen, without workers willing to risk getting sick for low wages.
Rather than promote public health, Republicans feel they’ve only discouraged work, because so many people can earn more, the same, or only slightly less by just collecting unemployment. Republicans want to force people back to their jobs, reopening the economy, the virus be damned.
In fact, in some states, Republican governors are cutting benefits to anyone who won’t return to their previous job, regardless of whether it’s safe.
When House Democrats passed their latest round of coronavirus economic relief in May — the $3 trillion HEROES Act — they extended the $600 unemployment benefits through the end of the year. It was just one part of a sprawling bill that also included hazard pay for essential workers and another round of stimulus payments for most households.
The hazard pay proposal would give grocery store and public safety workers an extra $13 per hour ― a way to make work more rewarding than receiving unemployment benefits.
If Democrats can’t cajole Republicans into another economic relief bill before the end of July, the looming expiration of the extra $600 will likely add significant pressure. That amount seems to be a nonstarter with Republicans, whose support is needed to get a bill through the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump. It’s possible, however, that lawmakers could compromise on a lower sum.
In an earlier proposal to extend the benefits past July, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a Ways and Means member, suggested phasing down the weekly amount as conditions improve.
“It’s important for Democrats to understand the Republican argument that there are a handful of people who are making more at home and don’t want to go back to their jobs where they make less money,” Beyer said.
A key element of Beyer’s proposal was that extra benefits would be reduced automatically according to specific metrics, such as unemployment rates and social distancing guidelines under the formal national emergency declaration.
“The notion with stepping it down was to create some political goodwill across the ideological spectrum for the automatic stabilizers,” Beyer said, adding that preserving some form of extra unemployment compensation is a top priority after making sure state and local governments can avoid massive layoffs.
Grothman seemed open to the idea of a lower number. ”Maybe $200,” he said.
Republicans have been generally noncommittal about another economic relief bill. A spokesperson for Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that it’s too early to predict economic conditions come July, but that committee members “have heard from employers that the beefed up unemployment payments can be a disincentive for hiring.”
Republicans have been grumbling about the benefits even as the state-federal unemployment system struggles with the basic task of paying people what they’re owed. That’s due partly to an unprecedented surge in claims, with nearly 40 million Americans applying for benefits within the past few months. When people do receive the money, however, it can be a lifesaver.
Just take the story of Marie Ramirez.
In March, she got laid off from her maintenance job at a fast food franchise in Fresno, California. She applied for unemployment, but it took a month for the claim to go through.
“Every time I tried to reach out it would say the system is not working,” she said. “I just kept on it.”
Ramirez, 55, said she called her mortgage lender and asked for forbearance. She fell behind on her car insurance payments.
“I was starting to panic. How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to pay my house payment?”
But then she got paid. Ramirez said she received a lump sum for weeks she’d missed ― more than $2,000 altogether. She paid her car insurance and even made the mortgage payments that weren’t due until July because of the forbearance plan.
She said her employer called her back to work earlier this month, then furloughed her again after one of her co-workers got sick.
“I get it: We need money, bills don’t stop,” Ramirez said in an email. “But if you’re sick or dead what does it matter?”
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