Yesterday, both Wisconsin legislative chambers passed AB336, a bill to stop PUA, PEUC, MEUC, and PUC benefits in Wisconsin. The Republicans in the state legislature are pushing for the end of all of these pandemic-related supplemental unemployment benefits, under the disguise that these additional benefits are keeping people from working.

Utter nonsense. The real reason for what is happening is a push to create a stigma against those receiving unemployment benefits.

First, the news from a few days ago about a massive budget surplus based in large part on these federal supplemental unemployment benefits should be enough to indicate just how foolish this proposed early end to these programs is.

While I have some concerns about how unemployment payments in 2021 are goosing these fiscal numbers (because the 2021 payments largely represent payment of weeks claimed in 2020 since unemployment payments in Wisconsin are delayed by six to twelve months or even longer), the legislative fiscal bureau has assured me that these back-loaded payments have been accounted for in the fiscal projections.

So, Republicans are basically proposing to cut off immediately one of the major engines of economic recovery. Why?

Second, the recovery is still ongoing. While initial claims in 2021 are well below what they were in 2020 when the pandemic first struck, they are still running at over twice the number of initial claims that occurred in 2019. So, despite all the reports about businesses having trouble finding workers, it seems that far too many businesses are also still letting people go.

Third, David Copper writes that cutting unemployment benefits early hurts workers and state economies:

  • Pulling out of federal unemployment insurance (UI) programs is short sighted and not justified by current labor market conditions; the economy is improving but still far from healthy.
  • Suitable jobs are still not available for many jobless workers. Cutting back aid will leave many struggling to make ends meet and damage these states’ long-term economic health.
  • Unemployment benefits help speed recovery by bolstering consumer demand. Governors choosing to pull out of federal programs are taking away dollars that would likely be spent at businesses in their own states.
  • Workers should have time to find work suitable to their skills and circumstances, and not be cornered into taking any job available. An adequate UI system provides workers with the financial cushion and time to find appropriate work.
  • Forcing the unemployed to take jobs that pay less than their previous positions or that are not appropriate for their skills is a waste of workers’ training, a job taken from someone else, and a hit to that worker’s earnings—all of which hurt states’ long-run potential for growth.

Fourth, rumors of labor shortages are NOT backed up by the actual data, writes Heidi Shierholz.

  • The chorus of employers complaining they can’t find the workers they need is not new. As we have seen coming out of previous recessions, as employers raise wages to attract workers, their staffing needs are being met.
  • The main problem in the U.S. labor market remains one of labor demand, not labor supply. The latest jobs report showed no signs of widespread labor shortages.
  • In a large majority of sectors, wages are growing solidly but not fast enough to raise concern about damaging labor shortages, given that job growth in those sectors is also strong.
  • Employers of low-wage workers typically have a great deal of power to suppress wages. This corners workers into taking any job regardless of how bad the wages or working conditions. Unemployment benefits are helping to take this pressure off workers and allowing them to not accept a terrible job — this is what economists would call efficiency enhancing.
  • States cutting pandemic UI programs stand to lose $22 billion in aid, forgoing an enormous amount of economic activity.

Fifth, a report from Jeanne Batalova and Michael Fix at the Migration Policy Institute indicates that:

A tight labor market and decent supports for unemployed workers means people can avoid getting shunted into jobs below their level of potential. That’s good for them – they will earn higher wages, and for government – they will pay more in taxes. It’s also good for overall economic productivity.

In fact, rather than saying a tight labor market/decent support policy is good or bad for employers, maybe we could differentiate and say it’s good for employers who hire higher-skilled workers and bad for those employers who offer jobs that do not require much education or training.

Sixth, because of Wisconsin’s partial wage formula, workers receiving unemployment benefits do better when working part-time, receiving both wages and unemployment benefits. In other words, unemployment and work are NOT mutually exclusive in Wisconsin and often happen together, especially in retail and restaurant work, where the supposed workers shortages are allegedly highest.

As Ruth Conniff writes, a politics of austerity and resentment is behind these changes.

trying to pit one group of voters against another doesn’t work as well when the Republicans are turning down billions that would make a big difference in people’s lives in every area of the state.

As I have written, the Republicans are simply returning to the old playbook of making unemployment worse in order to drive workers into low wages jobs as a substitute for the unemployment benefits they should be receiving. Feudal economics, indeed.

What is lost in this hubbub is the essential nature of unemployment benefits in the first place. Unemployment is an insurance system. Just like car insurance is there when there is an car accident, unemployment is supposed to be there when there is a job loss. Period. Under Wisconsin unemployment law, eligibility is presumed (at least that is what is supposed to happen).

We need to start thinking that unemployment is what it is — insurance — that must be paid out immediately whenever there is a no-fault job loss. As Wisconsin law explains:

Whether or not a given employing unit can provide steadier work and wages for its own employees, it can reasonably be required to build up a limited reserve for unemployment, out of which benefits shall be paid to its eligible unemployed workers, as a matter of right, based on their respective wages and lengths of service.

Wis. Stat. § 108.01(1) (emphasis supplied).

For those that want to see the impact this reduction of unemployment is having on states that are going forward with it, NELP has the details:

In 21 States Ending All Pandemic Unemployment Programs Early, 3 in 4 Will Lose All Jobless Aid

Nearly 4 Million Workers to Lose Lifeline Unemployment Payments Starting June 12

NATIONWIDE — In the 21 states ending early their participation in all federal pandemic unemployment programs, three quarters of the workers now receiving jobless aid—nearly 2.3 million people—will be left with no state or federal jobless aid at all, according to a new analysis released today by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

The greatest numbers of workers affected by the pandemic unemployment cutoffs will be in Texas, Ohio, Maryland, Georgia, Indiana, Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida. In Texas, a staggering four in five workers (81.9%) currently receiving unemployment payments—totaling 1.2 million workers, 59.3% of whom are workers of color—will lose all unemployment income support.

“The post-pandemic recovery has barely started. Employment remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Millions of people are still out of work and need the income support from unemployment insurance to get by,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “So it’s unconscionable that these 21 Republican governors have unilaterally decided that no one in their state needs any pandemic jobless aid anymore and that it’s OK to pull the plug on these programs early.”

“This severe, abrupt, and ill-advised cutoff of pandemic jobless aid hurts the workers and families who need that income support, harms the small businesses that depend on those workers to spend money as customers, and will set back the economic recovery in those states,” added Dixon.

The first wave of premature cutoffs begins on Saturday, June 12, in four states: Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, and Missouri. Alaska will be ending only the $300 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) weekly supplemental payments, while the other three states will be terminating all pandemic unemployment programs. Twenty-one more states will follow suit through June and early July, although NELP has argued that the U.S. Department of Labor has legal authority to ensure that all eligible workers continue to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits through September 6.

More than 3.9 million workers in 25 states will lose the weekly $300 FPUC payments. Workers of color will bear the brunt, as nearly half (over 46%) of unemployment insurance (UI) recipients in those states are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Workers losing out on lifeline payments will face an economy that is far from fully recovered. The May jobs report showed 9.3 million people unemployed, with another 5.3 million only working part-time but still seeking full-time work. The economy is down 7.6 million jobs (5%) from pre-pandemic Feb. 2020 levels. With families still reeling from loss, lack of childcare, and ever-present concerns about getting sick on the job, FPUC and all UI funds remain a crucial lifeline.

“The past year has demanded bold solutions to unprecedented levels of unemployment, with the additional federal unemployment funds serving as a necessary stopgap in lieu of structural reform. At this pivotal moment, elected officials need to get behind critical reforms to prevent future failures of our unemployment system, so we can avoid the type of harmful actions we’re now seeing at the state level,” said Dixon.

Federal pandemic programs are still helping millions of people and their families get through the worst economic crisis in over a century. For jobless workers and their families in states where Republican governors have opted out, the ramifications will be far-reaching:

- Over 3.9 million workers will lose the weekly $300 FPUC supplement in the 25 states. 3,951,578 people receiving unemployment payments as of May 15 will be affected — all of them losing the $300 weekly FPUC benefit supplement and more than half (57.5%) abruptly losing all unemployment benefits.

- In the 21 states ending participation in all of the pandemic programs, nearly 2.3 million people, who represent 74.5% of those receiving unemployment benefits in those states, will be left with no state or federal unemployment aid at all.

- Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color are nearly half (over 46%) of UI recipients in the states ending pandemic unemployment programs early.

- Of the 25 states cutting pandemic unemployment payments, 11 of them have 40% or higher people-of-color UI recipients, and eight have 50% or higher.

With unemployed people spending money at higher rates, federal assistance helps stimulate the economy just as businesses and industries begin to reopen, in addition to keeping families afloat. States that are prematurely ending federal pandemic unemployment programs threaten to stymie a fuller recovery.

READ THE DATA BRIEF: 3.9 Million Workers Face Premature Cutoff of Pandemic Unemployment Programs