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Pandemic hardship is about to get even worse for millions of out-of-work Americans

Millions of unemployed Americans are set to lose pandemic-related jobless benefits after Labor Day – just as surging cases of coronavirus slow the pace of hiring.

In all, an estimated 8.8 million people will stop receiving unemployment insurance beginning Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. An additional 4.5 million will no longer get the extra $300 a week the federal government has been providing to supplement state benefits.

But with the pandemic still raging thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, particularly in Southern states, the expiration of these benefits may be ill-timed. While some claim the aid is no longer needed and is doing more harm than good, others say the data tell another story.

Benefits lost

Three federal programs set up to support workers hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns expire on Sept. 6:

  • The Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation program offers 13 additional weeks in state unemployment benefits. An estimated 3.3 million people who were getting benefits through this program are set to lose them.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provides aid to gig workers and others not normally eligible for unemployment benefits. About 5.5 million people were receiving aid because of this program – including those who just joined the rolls in the second half of August.
  • The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program supplements state benefits with an additional $300 in aid per week – down from $600 when it began in April 2020.

All told, the end of these programs may affect 35 million people when you include families of the unemployed.

Dropping aid didn’t boost jobs growth

Critics of these federal supplemental benefits claim they reward Americans for not working by offering more in aid than they’d get from a job. This is why many Republican governors opted to drop out of one or more of the federal programs in recent months.

“We see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, said on May 11, 2021. “We do not want people on unemployment. We want people working.”

But the data so far don’t back up these claims.

Researchers compared employment growth in the 25 states that decided to drop the federal $300 supplement with those that kept it.

Total job creation in states that kept offering the federal supplement was 35% higher than in the ones that ended the program, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggesting the benefits aren’t keeping workers on the sidelines.

The same pattern holds for sectors of the economy hit hardest by COVID-19. Leisure and hospitality jobs, such as waitstaff and cooks, accounted for roughly 1 in 4 of all jobs lost in 2020. Hiring in those areas was 39% higher in July 2021 in states that kept the federal benefit.

This is consistent with a growing number of studies that show no correlation between the higher unemployment payments during the pandemic and lagging job growth.

It won’t be known whether the trend continued until the state-by-state employment breakdown is released in mid-September. But for now, the evidence doesn’t support the claim that benefits keep workers at home.

Jobless Americans still need support

Many people who want to work are still being prevented from doing so because of COVID-19.

The latest jobs report, released on Sept. 3, 2021, showed that 5.6 million people were unable to work in August because their employer closed or lost business because of the pandemic, up from 5.2 million in July.

That may help explain why companies hired only 235,000 in August – a third of what economists had expected. And there were no gains in leisure and hospitality, which pay some of the lowest wages of any industry.

As recently as late May, before the Delta variant began causing caseloads to climb, pandemic-related unemployment claims were falling across all 50 states. Then, over June and July, claims spiked again as COVID-19 cases rippled across the country.

All this shows why all three programs are still so important.

The extended benefits give unemployed people more time to find a job while helping them cover basic expenses. Gig workers, such as Uber drivers and other independent contractors, need unemployment benefits too, especially as 60% of them lost income during the pandemic and many continue to struggle as business activity remains subdued. These workers are also less likely to receive employer-sponsored benefits such as health care.

And the $300 federal supplement is important because pre-pandemic state benefits – which are typically about $340 a week – replaced only 30% to 50% of lost earnings. Even with the supplement, for most people, it’s still less than what they were earning from their job.

Tough choices ahead

That’s why the expiring benefits mean so much to lower-income families, especially now that the Supreme Court has struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ban on evictions. For many, losing the benefit could be mean having to choose between food and rent, or forgoing a doctor’s visit because of the high costs of health care.

But after the benefits expire on Labor Day, making ends meet and staying in their homes will be significantly harder for millions of American families.

This article by Jeffrey Kucik of the University of Arizona is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Staff is home to The NorthSider and The SouthSider weekly community newspapers. The SouthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Tuesday. The NorthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Thursday. They are distributed at over 600 locations across St. Louis.

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