Losing jobs and health access

As Iowa’s unemployment rate climbs towards numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, we are shedding health coverage — in the midst of a sustained public health crisis — almost as fast as we are shedding jobs.

One of the cruelest ironies of the COVID-19 unemployment crisis is that, alongside the job losses, many workers and their families are also losing health coverage.

In Iowa, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the nonelderly population rely on employment-based health insurance. As Iowa’s unemployment rate climbs towards numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, we are shedding health coverage — in the midst of a sustained public health crisis — almost as fast as we are shedding jobs.

Even in good times, our crazy patchwork of health coverage — job-based care for most, Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for low-income families, the ACA “marketplace” for others, and no coverage at all for the rest — is an engine of inequality. The better the job, as a rule, the better the health coverage. And in bad times, that coverage can easily disappear. Our reliance on job-based coverage, as one health policy expert famously put it, is like an umbrella that melts in the rain.

By one estimate (through May 14), about half of the 300,000 Iowans who lost their jobs in the COVID-19 recession also lost their health insurance. And this is a conservative estimate, as it does not count family members who might have relied on the same coverage and it is based only on those who lost their jobs and filed an unemployment claim.

These workers have some options — although the interruption of coverage alone is a frightening prospect in these troubled times. A lucky few might be able to pick up coverage through another family member who remains employed (and insured). Those losing job-based coverage have the “COBRA” option of continuing coverage by paying the full premiums themselves. But this is a costly option (the annual premium for job-based family coverage in Iowa is over $18,000) that few can afford.

Most displaced workers will turn to public programs. Iowa’s Medicaid program offers coverage to adults earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($16,791 for an individual, $28,888 for a family of three), and Medicaid and CHIP cover children in families with incomes up to 302 percent of the federal poverty level ($65,594 for a family of three). Unemployment benefits count towards this threshold, but the supplemental $600/week in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (available through the end of July) does not.

Those whose family incomes fall above the Medicaid or CHIP thresholds have the last option of the Affordable Care Act “marketplace” insurance. Iowa’s health insurance exchange is a “federally facilitated” marketplace, which means it cannot allow open enrollment outside the conventional enrollment window in November.

But loss of a job (and job-based insurance) does qualify for off-cycle enrollment, and the premium assistance available for those purchasing at least a bronze plan on the exchange can substantially reduce costs for those with income under three to four times the poverty level. But here again there is a catch: Unemployment benefits count as income in determining both eligibility for ACA assistance and the amount of the assistance.

All this underscores the inequity and inefficiency of our job-based health care system. It is uneven and unreliable. And it fails at its most elemental goal: to protect working Iowans from risks that are beyond their control.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP) and a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He has led IPP’s State of Working Iowa analyses since 2001, and is author of Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health Care in Twentieth Century America, and Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs.

Faster infection pace, fewer limits

Despite problems with testing, we are able to know where there have been major increases in identified cases.

A number of Iowa counties are seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, even as the Governor continues to reopen the Iowa economy and further relax social distancing requirements.

In Wapello County, cases soared from 10 on April 28 to 306 two weeks later. Over that same time period, Crawford County saw an increase from 21 to 207, and Sioux County from 8 to 103. Yet instead of reinstituting social distancing in those hot spots, the Governor has expanded her relaxation of requirements on businesses from 77 counties to all counties statewide.

Given the problems and delays with testing, and the lack of widespread testing, it is difficult to know just how many Iowans are actually infected with the coronavirus, and whether there are other emerging hotspots that remain unidentified. But we do know where there have been major increases in identified cases. For the most recent two-week period, the table below shows the 16 counties with the highest number of new cases per 100,000 population over the past two weeks (through May 12).

When adjusted for population, we see that many rural counties are experiencing more rapid growth than urban centers, many of which (Linn, Johnson, Scott) did not even make this list. Half the counties on the list (indicated by shading) are among the 77 counties where restrictions were first relaxed on May 1.

Most of those eight counties we identified last week as likely hot spots based on the growth in cases up to that point. New additions to the list are Monroe and Osceola, where the total number of cases is not large, but where we may be seeing the beginning of a surge. Six of the eight shaded counties saw their case count more than double in the past week.

It is easiest to see which counties have grown the fastest if we compare the cases per 100,000 population and how this number changed since the county first hit 50 cases. The counties are compared on the basis of when the surge began in their county. Wapello and Crawford have been growing at much the same rate as Woodbury, notably one of the top counties in the entire country in terms of the size and rate of the coronavirus surge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Fisher is research director for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

Another 25K Iowans file unemployment claims

At a moment when going back to work poses grave public health risks, it is in our best interests to be generous in determining eligibility for benefits.

In the week ending May 2, another 24,693 Iowans applied for unemployment insurance. That brings the total new claims for unemployment insurance, over the last seven weeks, to 285,741.

Iowa’s insured unemployment rate (the share of the labor force receiving unemployment benefits, which does not include this week’s new claims) is now 11 percent. Since mid-March almost 1 in 5 Iowa workers (more than 18 percent of the non-farm labor force) have filed an unemployment claim.

This total does not include those who have dropped out of the labor force. It does not include those unable to access our overwhelmed unemployment insurance application system.

And it does not include those discouraged from even applying by Iowa Workforce Development’s chilling “get back to work” directive. The outcry against that directive — so clearly at odds with both Iowa law and the unemployment crisis at hand — has forced IWD to soften its tone. The “FAQ” for workers on IWD’s website now acknowledges that unsafe working conditions, and the failure of employers to provide adequate protection, constitute valid reasons for leaving a job and claiming benefits.

As the jobs crisis deepens, we need to remember that unemployment insurance is intended as a safety net, as a means of sustaining incomes through periods of both personal misfortune and broader economic troubles.

We are at a moment when going back to work poses grave public health risks, and when the federal government has stepped up to cover most of the costs. Under these conditions, it is in our best interests to be generous in the determination of eligibility for benefits — and to let Iowa workers displaced by this crisis make the right decision for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.

Colin Gordon is senior reearch consultant for the Iowa Policy Project, and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Demanding a healthy way to go back to work

The state’s “back to work” directive sends the wrong public health message at exactly the wrong time. And in clear defiance of Iowa and federal standards, it puts economic and physical security of workers at unnecessary risk.

Iowans want to get back to work. But — much more importantly — they want to get back to work under conditions that protect their health and safety, and the health and safety of their families and communities.

Over the past few weeks, we have questioned both the metrics and the lack of transparency behind the state’s decision — virtually alone among its peers — to stop short of a “shelter in place” order. Those concerns are now magnified by announcement this week that Governor is lifting social distancing measures in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties — this despite the fact that the caseload in Iowa continues to grow, that two of Iowa’s metros (Sioux City and Waterloo-Cedar Falls) are currently among the worst “hot spots” in the entire country, and that a sudden influx in social interactions, as the Iowa Medical Society warned earlier this week, “is all but certain to cause a spike in new COVID-19 patients and potentially overwhelm our health care system.”

Even more troubling is the clear evidence that public health policy is being driven by largely economic concerns. At the same moment as the Governor’s office announced the relaxation of restrictions, Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) chimed in with a chilling directive for unemployed Iowans — warning not only that “Iowans who refuse to return to work without good reason when recalled will lose eligibility to unemployment benefits,” but that those who continued to draw benefits in defiance of this directive faced “serious consequences for fraud, including fines, confinement and ineligibility for future unemployment benefits.” IWD even created a webform where employers are encouraged to “report employees who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs.”

The IWD directive goes on to list a narrow range of “good cause” reasons for remaining unemployed — including a positive COVID test (for the worker or a member of her or his household), and the loss of child care or transportation to work because of COVID-19.

This directive — and the message it sends to working Iowans — is bad public health policy in a state where the most severe COVID outbreaks have occurred at workplaces. But, just as importantly, it offers a fundamentally flawed misreading of both Iowa law and the terms of the federal Families First and CARES Acts.

Iowa Code (871-Chapter 24.26 [96]) is crystal clear on this point, and offers a much broader set of conditions and options. A person who leaves a job due to “unsafe working conditions” or “intolerable or detrimental working conditions” cannot be considered to have voluntarily quit the position, which would make the worker ineligible for unemployment benefits. The determination of what is “unsafe” or “intolerable” depends upon both the workplace and the worker. A reasonable standard of safety, under these conditions, might be the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control or the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for best practices — regarding social distancing and protective equipment — for workplaces. Yet, while IWD is directed to discourage claims and applications, there is no accompanying expectation that such safety guidelines are mandatory in Iowa workplaces.

Federal law offers the same basic assurance. For workers collecting regular UI, the federal “prevailing conditions of work” provision prohibits a state from denying UI to a worker who refuses work if the “the wages, hours, or other conditions of the work offered are substantially less favorable to the individual than those prevailing for similar work in the locality.” This provision covers “work rules, including health and safety rules” and situations where there has been a change in the existing conditions of work. According to the legislative history of the provision, it “requires a liberal construction in order to carry out the Congressional intent and the public policy embodied therein,” and the “the claimant should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

In turn, IWD’s directive flies in the face of the federal programs (and money) designed to both prop up Iowa’s unemployment system through the crisis and offer a more generous approach to eligibility. The Families First Act (passed in mid-March) offered emergency grants to states (including Iowa) for the administration of unemployment under the condition that states streamline their application process and “demonstrate policies to increase access to unemployment compensation.” The Act also requires a report, due at this time next year, detailing how progress on increased access.

The CARES Act (passed in late March) established three new unemployment programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for those workers (self-employed, gig workers) not conventionally eligible for unemployment insurance; Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), which adds $600 per week (through the end of July) to all unemployment claims paid under either regular UI or the PUA; and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a 13-week extension of state UI benefits.

The programs extended the logic of the Families First Act: States were expected to be expansive and generous in their approach to eligibility for unemployment insurance, making it both possible and economically-feasible for workers to shelter in place and avoid the risks posed in many settings by continued employment. Importantly, the CARES Act attached a list of COVID-related conditions (similar to that in the IWD directive) to the PUA program, but not to the expansion or extension of regular UI benefits.

The IWD’s “Back to Work” directive is bad public policy. On public health grounds, it sends exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time. And, in clear defiance of Iowa and federal standards for unemployment insurance eligibility, it puts the economic security and physical health of Iowa workers at dire and unnecessary risk. The Governor and Iowa Workforce Development should reverse course and protect our workers and their families.

Colin Gordon, senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project, is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Iowa unemployment claims keep rising

New unemployment claims continued to climb in the week ending April 11. Nationally, 5,245,000 workers filed new claims, bring the total to 22,634,000 new claims since March 21 (when the first COVID-19 layoffs starting hitting the books). As this week’s release concludes glumly: “This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted insured unemployment in the history of the seasonally adjusted series.” In Iowa, we added 46,356 new claims, for a four-week total of 207,468.

We can now also begin to see the impact on national and state unemployment rates. The weekly claims data allows us to calculate the “insured unemployment rate” or the share of the labor force receiving unemployment benefits. In Iowa, the insured unemployment rate rose to 10.2 percent for the week ending April 4.

200416-IA_insured_unemployed

It is important to point out that this represents a fraction of the actual unemployment rate, which is the share of the labor force unemployed but looking for work (in Iowa, only about 40 percent of unemployed workers receive unemployment benefits).

The rates of insured unemployed in the states for the week ending April 4 range from 3.8 percent in South Dakota to 17.8 percent in Rhode Island. For a conservative estimate of the actual unemployment rates by state, double these numbers. Those estimates — putting most states in the range from 20 to 30 percent — are steeper than the unemployment rates of the Great Depression.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

 

Governor’s metrics still raise questions

Iowa’s social distancing policy appears to be hostage to an unexplained and backward-looking indicator for hospitalizations.

(UPDATED, APRIL 16)

The latest “metrics” from the Governor’s office once again raise serious questions. A few days ago it seemed clear that two or three of the state’s six regions would very soon reach the magic number 10, at which point shelter-in-place is considered justified by the Governor and the Iowa Department of Public Health, according to their guidelines. Instead, as of April 15, regions 1 and 6 remained stuck at 8 and 9, respectively, and region 5 had fallen to 8. Why? Because the hospitalization rate score, which by deduction must have been at 3 for all 6 regions just a week ago, was suddenly downgraded to 1 in two regions, and 2 in two others.

Today, April 16, things changed again. Lo and behold, Region 6 made it to 10. And in fact the Governor followed through with something akin to shelter in place, with most kinds of gatherings limited to families, not groups of 10 or fewer. No additional business closures were announced, however. Meanwhile, Region 5 jumped two points with new outbreaks at two more nursing homes, but then lost a point because the hospitalization score apparently was lowered again, without any explanation. So it remains at 9, even though it is maxed out on all criteria except hospitalizations.

No explanation of the hospitalization score has been forthcoming beyond the vague definition in the “Guidance” memo unearthed by Zachary Smith of the Iowa City Press-Citizen last week. That memo defines it thus: “Percent of identified cases requiring hospitalization.” Is the numerator the cumulative total of all cases in Iowa that required hospitalization at some point, or just cases in the last 14 days, or just current hospitalizations as of the most recent day? Is the numerator cumulative cases, cases in the last 14 days, or something else? We don’t know, and no hospitalization rate by this measure has been reported even statewide, nor does the newly launched dashboard contain any hospitalization data at the county or regional level.

Total cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, as do current hospitalizations. So in the face of a rising number of Iowans currently with a severe enough case of the virus to be hospitalized, why does the hospitalization score decline, lessening the supposed need for shelter in place? Why is the percent relevant in the first place? Surely the total number of persons hospitalized for the virus is the single most important indicator, since it signifies not only the number of Iowans seriously affected by the virus, but the potential strain on hospital resources.

A forecast of this number is the crucial indicator in the widely known forecasting models by epidemiologists at the University of Washington and elsewhere. But in Iowa, we still do not have a forecast, and social distancing policy appears now to be hostage to an unexplained and backward-looking indicator. If that percentage continues to be low, or to fall, despite daily increases in cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, we may not see another region get to the magic number of 10.

Peter Fisher is research director for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Sheltering the data in place

One thing is clear: transparency has been sadly lacking, and for no apparent reason.

Governor Kim Reynolds over the past few weeks has moved incrementally to close more kinds of businesses, to the point where Iowa’s restrictions now resemble those of states that have a blanket statewide “shelter in place” order. Significant distinctions remain: a proper and comprehensive shelter in place order closes all businesses except those specified as essential, leaving no ambiguities and loopholes, and comes with clear and enforceable restrictions on travel and social activities.

The governor continues to assert that her recommendations are driven by the same four metrics that have guided her since the beginning and that only recently became partly public information due to efforts by the press. We provided a thorough analysis of that guidance several days ago. On Tuesday, we finally learned about one of those metrics: There are three long-term care facilities with a sufficient number of COVID-19 cases to be classified as a facility with an outbreak.

We now know enough to construct the point system in spite of stonewalling by the Governor’s Office.

The first of the four measures — percent of population age 65 or over — can be found from census data. The second — cases per 100,000 population — can be calculated because the number of cases has been released by IDPH by county. The third — outbreaks at care facilities — is now known, with locations, because of a question at a press conference.

That leaves the fourth — hospitalizations as a percent of cases — that is unknown by county or region because the governor still refuses to release the data. But we know the total score by region because it shows up on the maps that are intermittently released at press conferences (but remain unavailable on the IDPH website). Thus by subtraction we can determine that all four regions must be at the highest level, a 3, on the hospitalization rate score.

From here on out, the only thing that can change is the cases per 100,000 population and the number of care facility outbreaks. Region 5 is already at the maximum on the cases measure, and regions 1 and 6 will likely get there soon, leaving all three regions with a score of 9, 1 short of 10, the number that supposedly triggers shelter in place. So those regions, covering a large majority of the state’s population and COVID-19 cases, can get to 10 only with another outbreak at a care facility.

The governor on the one hand argues that we already have the equivalent of shelter in place, and at the same time the metric that she says still guides her decisions shows that shelter in place is not yet warranted anywhere in the state. Has that metric really been used thus far, and in what way? How do you get from the metrics to a list of particular additional businesses to close? What will happen when a region reaches 10? Will the governor order more stringent measures in just that region? Or will the whole thing be scrapped once a proper forecasting model is developed that meets with her approval?

One thing is clear: transparency has been sadly lacking, and for no apparent reason.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa’s employment apocalypse

As daunting as we may find the new unemployment claims numbers, they understate the true scale of the damage to the economy.

This morning, the Department of Labor released the count of new weekly claims for unemployment insurance, marking the second week of claims reflecting the employment impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The numbers are staggering, not just for their scope but for their suddenness. Most downturns in the business cycle occur gradually over a number of months; this spike has occurred in just a couple of weeks. These numbers are also the best metric we have in this unfolding crisis, providing us a near real-time measure that the April jobs report (with a March 12 reference point) will largely miss.

Nationally, new claims for the week ending March 21 were 3.28 million; last week we added another 6.65 million new claims — a total fully 10 times the previous weekly peak. In the week ending March 21, Iowa fielded 40,952 claims for unemployment insurance; in the week ending March 28, we added another 58,453. The total over the last two weeks — almost 100,000 new claims — is about the same number of new claims filed in the first four months of the Great Recession. The graph below plots weekly claims since 2007, the Great Recession indicated by the grey shading.

These numbers, of course, understate the true scale of the damage. Those ineligible for regular unemployment insurance — including the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, and new entrants to the labor market) do not show up in the claims data — although this will change once the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program kicks in. And the underemployed, those who are hanging on to whatever hours they can get, are also uncounted here.

And Iowa is not alone. In a longer post at Dissent, I plot all the state numbers: Off-the-charts rates of new claims over the past two weeks are evident in almost all states — but especially in those with a high share of leisure and hospitality workers, and those hard hit by the pandemic itself. California logged 186,000 new claims in the week ending March 21; and added almost five times as many (878,000) this week. New claims in Louisiana, as a telling measure of the mess many states are in, spiked on March 21 to the same level (over 70,000) as those made in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina — and this past week added another 97,000 claims.

The best numbers we have show that Iowa and the nation will see a lot of economic harm. It is essential to help all workers now.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa, and senior research consultant at the Iowa Policy Project. He has authored or co-authored IPP’s State of Working Iowa series and several other IPP reports on issues affecting working families, jobs, pay and benefits.

Too soon to consider recovery?

Even economists point the immediate focus to public health — and keep recovery in the wider view.

What is needed in a pandemic is for citizens to stay home, and for public policy to assure access to unemployment insurance and health care, and push support to the health system.

Economists such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are making these points — that limiting the spread of the coronavirus is the top priority to save lives.[1] When even economists are pressing the point about public health, our leaders should pay attention. Now is not the time to talk about being “open for business” prematurely, as President Trump once suggested we do by Easter.

That is not to say a public health spotlight precludes steps in the coming weeks and months to set up recovery when that can be the main focus.

Now, jobs remain in critical services in hospitals and electric stations, and some in construction. Factories where people stand next to each other on a production line have different social distancing from workers who build things in the open air. We could expand more of the latter jobs right now where the materials are at hand.

Good examples: Wind turbines and solar installations and the power lines that connect them to the electric grid. Right now we could be constructing clean energy facilities that can be producing electricity in six months or a year when we all want demand to expand. It is an opportune moment to think ahead and start replacing older coal production plants, which have their own health problems.

Public policy has a role here. Just before the Iowa legislators recessed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they passed — and Governor Kim Reynolds signed — a bill to stabilize the solar industry. It would do this by setting the price for the next seven years for the electricity that MidAmerican and Alliant buy from homeowners and businesses.[2]

Another step the Legislature could take is lifting the limit on the tax credit for businesses and homeowners when they install solar.

The annual amount that could be taken on the credit was not fully used in the first year, but in all years since 2013 installations exceeded the cap, now at $5 million per year, pushing installations completed later in the year to a waitlist.[3] The tax credit eventually comes but not until at least a year later. While an installation completed today will get a federal tax credit when taxes are filed in April 2021, the Iowa tax credit will not happen until 2022 or later.

Why make these Iowa investors wait? Extending the total amount eligible for the credit from $5 million to perhaps $20 million would further stimulate the construction of solar panels just when the economy needs the jobs.

There also is a federal role, as the amount of that credit for both solar and wind is phasing out. This would be a good time to stop the phaseout for the next several years. Tax credits of electric cars could also be enhanced.

COVID-19 has slammed the economy. We need to think about when we will recover but also how we will recover. Jobs in clean energy have been on a growth curve that can be re-established quickly. And these jobs are creating a new energy system that will help us with the next crisis, climate change.

Most agree we should follow science to confront the pandemic. We should also follow the science to prepare for the next crisis — climate change.

David Osterberg is an economist and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

A version of this column also ran in the April 1 Quad-City Times.

 

 

 

 

[1] MSNBC interview, March 17, 2020. https://www.msnbc.com/the-beat-with-ari/watch/-our-economy-is-shutting-down-clinton-wh-veteran-pushes-lives-over-dollars-in-covid-19-crisis-80868933847

[2] O. Kay Henderson. Iowa House and Senate give solar bill unanimous support. Radio Iowa March 4, 2020. https://www.radioiowa.com/2020/03/04/iowa-house-and-senate-give-solar-bill-unanimous-support/

[3] Iowa Department of Revenue. Solar Energy System Tax Credit Annual Report for 2019. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/DF/1126111.pdf

New solutions needed long term

Federal emergency legislation will make important unemployment insurance reforms on a temporary basis. Iowa — like other states — should make secure and equitable changes permanent.

Current estimates of job losses in the COVID-19 recession are hard to fathom. Even with a sizable stimulus, the national economy would shed nearly 14 million jobs by mid-summer; Iowa is projected to lose more than 140,000.

To make matters worse, as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute underscores, this recession is “laser-targeted at low-wage, low-productivity, and low-hours jobs in service industries.”[1]

Our most vulnerable workers, in other words, will bear much of the burden: They do not have the option of working from home — a luxury enjoyed by two-thirds of workers in the top quarter of the earning distribution and by one-third of white workers, but by fewer than 1 in 10 workers in the bottom quarter of the distribution, 1 in 5 African-American workers and 1 in 6 Latinx workers. These vulnerable workers face both a much greater risk of unemployment as the service economy shuts down and a heightened risk of exposure to the virus if they keep working.

This is a scale of unemployment and social and economic dislocation that our existing programs are ill-equipped to handle. This demands a policy response — state and federal — unprecedented in its scale, and innovative in its efforts to reach those most affected. At the forefront of that policy response is both a dramatic expansion and a fundamental rethinking of unemployment insurance.

The first step here has already been taken by the federal government. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (passed March 18) pumped $1 billion into the administration of state unemployment insurance (UI) programs, in exchange for new state standards and conditions. In order to draw down these funds, states must improve their methods of notifying workers of their eligibility for benefits, provide multiple (not just online) methods of filing, provide prompt notice of the receipt of a claim, waive waiting periods for benefits, waive the requirement that recipients be actively searching for work, and ensure that employers are held blameless for COVID-19 layoffs. (Conventionally, UI is “experience-rated” so that employers with histories of layoffs are taxed at a higher rates).

As Peter Fisher pointed out in recent days, Iowa has met all these conditions. There is still a lot of work to be done — not just to meet the current crisis, but to ensure that our unemployment insurance system is recast for the 21st century and ready for the next crisis.

The first task is to make unemployment insurance accessible and available to more workers.

In Iowa, just 41 percent of unemployed workers ever see a benefit check. This is better than the national rate (28 percent), but it is still a scandal that well over half of the jobless are left in the cold. We should sustain the “Families First” Act’s commitment to raising the recipiency rate by streamlining the claims process. Federal and state unemployment law should revise our definition of “employee” to better capture the diversity of employment (including the self-employed, gig workers, and the like) in the modern economy. Too often, workers — cleaners, homecare workers, delivery drivers — are misclassified as “independent contractors” and shut out of basic social insurance programs like UI. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program embedded in the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to those (like the self-employed) otherwise ineligible for UI. This is a start — but the real fix would be to recast the law so that such workers are eligible in good times and bad.

By the same token, we should make permanent the more generous standard for a “good cause” separation, allowing workers — not just in pandemic conditions — to qualify for UI when they leave their jobs for compelling personal reasons. Iowa should make better use of its work sharing program, which allows workers partial compensation for reduced hours, while retaining their attachment to the labor force and their access to job-based benefits such as pensions and health insurance. And we should make benefits available to new entrants to the labor force — students graduating into a recession, returning caregivers, the formerly incarcerated — who deserve support even in the absence of a recent work history.

Second, we need to bolster the size and the duration of the basic benefit. Iowa’s current “replacement rate” is less than 50 percent of current wages — higher than the national average (38 percent) but still woefully insufficient to maintain basic expenses.[2] The logic here, of course, is that a low replacement rate will compel the unemployed to look for work. But low replacement rates (and short benefit windows) create enormous economic burdens and, by pressing workers back into the labor force, actually worsen re-employment prospects. As a baseline, UI benefits should be closer to two-thirds wages. And, for the duration of this crisis, they should be 100 percent. After all, places of employment are under order to close down, and those displaced have few options. This is why the pending stimulus bill bumps UI benefits by $600/week through the end of June.

Finally, we need to improve the funding of state unemployment insurance programs. The $1 billion boost to administration in the “Families First” legislation does not come close to backfilling cuts in federal aid since the 1980s. During the last recession, 36 state UI trust funds went broke — and most of those entered the current crisis with insufficient reserves. Iowa’s trust fund is in better shape than most, but all state funds will be exhausted once this crisis lifts. Under current law, the state only taxes the first $7,000 in earnings. This should be increased dramatically (Social Security taxes the first $137,700), so that revenues are sufficient to sustain UI administration, and pay extended and disaster benefits when needed.

Federal emergency legislation — some in place, some in the pipeline — will install many of these reforms on a temporary basis. But many of the problems being addressed — the accessibility of benefits for deserving workers, the low percentage of the unemployed who receive benefits, the insufficient level and duration of benefits — are broader problems with the UI system itself. Iowa should, of course, do what it can to qualify its workers for extended and enhanced benefits paid for with federal dollars. But it should also follow the lead of other states in making its UI system more secure and equitable on a permanent basis.

[1] Josh Bivens, Economic Policy Institute, “Coronavirus shock will likely claim 3 million jobs by summer,” March 17, 2020. https://www.epi.org/blog/coronavirus-shock-will-likely-claim-3-million-jobs-by-summer/

[2] The inadequacy of this replacement level is compounded by the fact that the benefits are still taxable, and yet they do not count as earnings for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit, creating an additional income loss for low wage workers receiving that tax credit.

Colin Gordon is a University of Iowa professor of history and is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored several IPP reports since the organization began in 2001. Among these are the State of Working Iowa series, and the October 2019 report “Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity and Public Policy in the Midwest,” for Economic Analysis and Research Network members IPP, Policy Matters Ohio and COWS.