But many workers across the country who left their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic did not receive benefits in the first place.
Elaine Perez of Fort Myers, Florida, said it had taken her husband six weeks to claim benefits on the state government website for unemployment claims and that they still had not money receipt.
“It looks like it’s designed so people don’t want to do it,” said Perez, 28, in an interview. Last week, his employer asked him to return to work as a behavioral therapist at home.
Perez is 38 weeks pregnant, which means she is potentially at higher risk for serious illness during the pandemic. She does not feel safe to return. However, if she refuses work, she could lose her eligibility for benefits that she still has not received.
She is one of the millions of workers caught in this impasse, thanks in part to an outdated unemployment insurance program that was crushed by the recession fueled by the pandemic and in part to previous decisions by Florida lawmakers to make it difficult to of benefits.
The unemployment system in the United States is a patchwork of 52 different state-level agencies, mostly understaffed and equipped with varying degrees of technology, overseen by the United States Department of Labor. Even in 2014 and 2015, when far fewer people were claiming benefits, it could take up to two hours to communicate with someone over the phone at a state employment agency.
When the pandemic forced millions of Americans out of work this spring, these agencies are struggling to keep up. Congress then increased the level of complexity in March, when lawmakers passed the Coronavirus Aid, Rescue and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act.
New policies have made even more workers eligible for unemployment benefits, extending coverage to independent contractors and concert workers. In particular, legislators have created what has been called unemployment on steroids, an additional $ 600 per week for all beneficiaries. Combined with regular benefits, this is more than most of the lowest paid workers ever earned and double the federal minimum wage.
The money should have been a boon for the legions of the unemployed. And for many, it was a lifeline. But states have struggled to distribute benefits, with some claimants waiting two full months before seeing a penny.
More than 38 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus closures began earlier this year, but barely half were likely paid in early May, according to data from the Department of Health. work by the activist group One Fair Wage.
Republicans, however, are more obsessed with the possibility that, because of the extra $ 600 a week, some workers may turn down job offers.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Tuesday asked President Donald Trump to oppose the extension of the additional $ 600 on July 31, the date it will expire. Trump did not rule out signing a bill that would extend current benefits, but was in favor of Graham’s position, calling it a “problem.”
“It should be detrimental to the economic recovery,” said Graham after meeting Trump and the Senate Republicans at Capitol Hill.
Business groups have long opposed generous benefits, fearing that they will be forced to raise the wages of the lowest-paid workers. And state labor policies have been designed to make it difficult to get benefits, said One Fair Wage president Saru Jayaraman.
“They don’t want the benefits to be easy to access because they want people to take low-wage jobs,” said Jayaraman. “We always want to keep a pool of low-wage workers available.”
There are Republicans who recognize the problem of unpaid benefits.
“The outdated systems that exist in our states make it difficult to get their basic benefits,” Senator Tim Scott (RS.C.) told HuffPost on Wednesday, citing the large increase in unemployment claims in South Carolina at over the past month.
“The good news is that you know the money is coming. The bad news is that it doesn’t help you today, “he added.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images
As of Thursday morning, more than 38 million Americans have filed initial claims for benefits in the past three months. But the initial request is just a request for the state to make a decision as to whether someone is eligible. Only 27 million people filed “reimbursement claims” the week after their initial claim, according to the latest figures, a necessary step to receive benefits. The data does not say how much is actually paid.
Nine states have not even started distributing benefits under the new eligibility criteria to workers who are not normally covered, such as those who have left their jobs due to the pandemic or independent contractors such as Uber drivers.
It is likely that the Department of Labor will not meet its own basic performance standard of paying 87% of benefits within three weeks of initial requests. Democrats have criticized Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia for delays in benefits, while the ministry has welcomed the implementation of the new policies.
There are huge differences between states. Vermont seems to pay all of its unemployed workers on time, according to One Fair Wage analysis. Florida, on the other hand, pays only 32% of the claims, one of the worst performances of any state.
The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimated that only 20% of unemployment claims in Florida were paid in mid-April. Eligible people should receive all the money they have missed in the weeks they have been waiting for.
Perez said she and her husband, an Uber driver, have fallen behind on their mortgages since their incomes cratered more than a month ago. Not only did they receive no benefits, but they do not even know if his request has been finalized and they cannot obtain a response by calling the state government.
“No one seems to be coming to help us,” said Perez.
Florida reformed its unemployment system in 2011, reducing the number of weeks of benefits available, making it easier for companies to dispute claims from former employees and making it compulsory for workers who are laid off to file their claims online. The state website has always had problems, and in the coronavirus epidemic it got so bad that the head of the State Department for Economic Opportunities apologized.
These changes have resulted in far fewer Florida layoff victims being paid. In 2007, almost a third of the state’s unemployed received benefits. Last year, only 11% did so. Similar changes in other states that have followed Florida’s lead in cutting benefits have contributed to a significant drop in the rate of unemployed receiving benefits nationwide, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Institute.
Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Who was governor of Florida during the reforms, said it was a shame how hard it was for states to pay benefits.
“No one anticipated the numbers, how unprecedented they were,” Scott told the HuffPost this week, adding that Congress had made things more difficult with the political news. “So I think all of these things together made it difficult across the country. You feel sorry for people who need unemployment. ”