Six months: 1 in 4 Iowa workers file jobless claims

While the employment crisis persists, Congress is seemingly deadlocked over the question of extending enhanced unemployment benefits — which expire this week.

The week ending July 25th marked the 26th week of the COVID-19 Recession. In that half year, 420,702 working Iowans (including another 7,441 last week) have filed for unemployment insurance. This is a staggering number. It represents almost one-quarter of the February 2020 labor force. And it is nearly four times the number of claims (107,344) filed by Iowans over the first six months of the Great Recession.

The largest differences between the last recession and this one have come from the eighth week on. The last 19 weeks represent 403,697 of the total increase in this recession, all of those weeks substantially higher than the comparable period in the Great Recession.

While the employment crisis persists, Congress is seemingly deadlocked over the question of extending enhanced unemployment benefits — which expire this week. The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May, would extend the $600/week PUC program through January 31, 2021. The HEALS Act pushed by Senate Republicans would slash that benefit to $200 through the end of September, and then cap the total UI benefit at 70 percent of lost wages. If this passes, weekly benefits for Iowa’s unemployed would drop from an average of $927 per week to $527 per week — a cut of 43 percent. To add insult to injury, the Senate plan also neglects to extend the federal moratorium on evictions.

This is a perilous moment. With new unemployment claims holding steady at more than double the weekly claims of the Great Recession, and economic recovery faltering in the face of surging COVID cases, we need to protect Iowa’s working families from both income insecurity and housing insecurity.

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

Data clear: New stimulus needed

Basic protections needed in unemployment insurance, SNAP, energy and other assistance as the COVID-19 virus surges in Iowa and other states in a weak economy.

As the long-awaited next round of federal aid and stimulus remains mired in political infighting, the hardship in Iowa — and around the country — is acute. As a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) makes clear, households are struggling to pay for the basics now, and that need will only grow if the $600 per week federal “PUC” boost to unemployment insurance benefits expires as scheduled next week.

The receipt of SNAP (food stamps) is up 14 percent in Iowa since February of this year, but the share of Iowans reporting food insecurity continues to grow. According to the CBPP’s analysis of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 1-in-8 (12 percent) Iowa families with children reported (for the last week of June and first week of July) that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days.

Housing insecurity is also a growing problem. Iowa set up a small fund with CARES Act funds to provide short-term assistance for those unable to make rent or mortgage payments — but disqualified those receiving PUC benefits from even applying. There is about $20 million left in the fund (out of $22 million) but when the PUC expires next week, the demands on this program will skyrocket. According to CBPP, 1 in 6 Iowa tenants are already behind on their rent.

These hardships will be especially stark for Iowa’s Black and Latino workers and their families. Unemployment rates are persistently higher for workers of color. These workers are disproportionately represented among the front-line and manufacturing (especially meat processing) jobs that have posed a higher risk of exposure to the virus. In the absence of meaningful and enforceable workplace protections, the temporary boost to UI benefits provided something of a refuge. As an administrative judge concluded in approving unemployment compensation for a worker who quit because of safety concerns concluded in one recent UI case, “the working conditions at Tyson were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental, and rose to the level where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit.” But that option evaporates next week.

All of this hardship would be even worse in the absence of the CARES Act provisions for enhanced unemployment insurance, and increased federal support for SNAP, LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), and other social supports. Iowans are suffering with those programs in place, and they will suffer more if social supports are allowed to return to levels previous to COVID-induced shutdowns.

The latest data on initial unemployment claims, released today, show the persistence of Iowa’s economic woes during the pandemic, with nearly 400,000 filing claims in the last 18 weeks.

It is crucial that, with the virus surging in Iowa and other states and the economy projected to remain weak, that our federal representatives move quickly to enact a stimulus package that continues and expands upon these basic protections. We need an extension of expanded unemployment benefits, more opportunities for paid leave, more federal support for child care, SNAP, and LIHEAP, and robust fiscal relief for states and localities. And it is just as crucial that Governor Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature pass along any discretionary state assistance to those in the most need.

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

Iowa jobless claims numbers daunting

Initial jobless claims keep climbing in Iowa. Yet, as the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel.

In the last week, another 11,125 Iowans applied for unemployment insurance. That brings the total, in the 24 weeks since the COVID-19 recession began in February, to over 400,000 — or almost a quarter of the entire Iowa labor force. Of that, nearly 388,000 (387,847) are the change over the last 17 weeks, in which these numbers first spiked.

Let’s put that in perspective: 400,000 unemployment claims is over four times the number filed over the first 24 weeks of the Great Recession. Over that span, from December 2007 to May 2008, weekly claims peaked at 13,542 in late December 2007 — the only week in the Great Recession when Iowa unemployment claims topped the 10,000 mark. In the last 24 weeks, weekly claims have exceeded 10,000 eleven times. Indeed, the average since early February is almost 17,000 new weekly claims — 3,000 higher than the worst week of the Great Recession.

As the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel. On July 25, the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 weekly boost to regular state benefits — comes to an end. For the nearly 150,000 Iowans currently receiving unemployment benefits, the checks will be a lot smaller: For an unemployed worker who had been working full-time at minimum wage, the weekly check will shrink from over $800 to barely $200. Once the applications of the 11,125 Iowans who filed for unemployment last week are processed, the PUC will be a distant memory — and their benefits will replace barely half of their lost wages.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

Warning: Edge of a cliff

With COVID cases surging, extending federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

In less than two weeks, the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 federal supplement to unemployment insurance benefits — will come to a close. The impact, for Iowa’s working families and for the Iowa economy, is likely to be devastating.

Our regular unemployment insurance system reaches only about half of the workforce and replaces barely half of an unemployed worker’s wages. In order to support those workers thrown out of work by the pandemic and, more broadly, to support the public health goal of sheltering in place, the CARES Act extended eligibility to most of those not covered (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA) and added $600 a week to the benefit paid under regular UI and the PUA.

This means a full-time minimum wage worker who lost their job qualifies for a regular weekly benefit of about $152.00 (Iowa unemployment insurance replaces about 52 percent of wages), and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $752.00. An unemployed worker had had been earning the median hourly wage in Iowa ($18.40) qualifies for a weekly benefit of $387.00 and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $987.00.

The $600 supplement under the PUC and the entire benefit paid to non-traditional workers under the PUA are all paid for the federal dollars. That has had a huge stimulus effect in Iowa, sustaining not just individual consumption but state and local tax revenues as well. Currently there are 145,875 Iowans either receiving regular UI+PUC or waiting for their claim to be processed, and another 18,456 receiving PUA+PUC. That represents an inflow of over $102 million into the state every week. Come July 25th, when only the federal contribution to the regular PUA benefit is left, and that will slow to a trickle, barely $3 million a week.

The result? Many of the unemployed will see a substantial benefit cut, tumbling from near full replacement of wages for workers earning less than $65,000 to barely half that. At half-wages, few will be able to meet basic expenses. That blow will reverberate throughout the economy. According to new estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, failure to extend the PUC beyond July will cost Iowa another 42,586 jobs over the next year.

Meager benefits and persistently high unemployment, in turn, will put new demands on other forms of social support, including SNAP and rental and utility assistance. And they will press the unemployed — unable to pay their bills — back into the labor force at the expense of their health and the public health. With COVID cases surging in Iowa and many other states, the extension of federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

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

Iowa’s continuing jobs crisis

The last time the unemployment rate was this high, Charlie Chaplin was starring in Modern Times, and Jesse Owens was upstaging Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

In the week ending June 13, another 9,516 Iowa workers filed for unemployment insurance. This brings the total new claims since the start of the COVID recession to over 350,000, or one-fifth of the labor force.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Iowa in April (the latest month for which data is available) was 10.2 percent, but that is a serious undercount for two reasons:

First, it misses those who, faced with such a dismal job market or family commitments, have dropped out of the labor force altogether. If you are not actively looking for work, you don’t get counted as unemployed. In April, Iowa’s labor force participation rate (the share of the working age population who are working or looking for work) dropped below 70 percent for the first time since the Great Recession.

Second: misclassification. In calculating the April unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics misclassified those furloughed or unable to work because of family commitments as “employed but unable to work.”

If we take these factors into account, the real unemployment rate in Iowa is probably closer to 15 percent. The last time the unemployment rate was this high, Charlie Chaplin was starring in Modern Times, Jesse Owens was upstaging Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics, and the cement in the Hoover Dam was not yet dry.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project (IPP), and a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He has provided job and work-life issue analysis for IPP since the organization started in 2001.

Worker safety: Who gets protected?

Public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward. The blanket business immunity in SF2338 during COVID-19 comes with a failed record of protecting Iowa workers.

The COVID-19 crisis poses a dizzying combination of health and economic risks, and it has forced us to rethink the ways in which our public policies protect us against those risks. The underlying logic of the CARES Act, for example, was based on the assumption that sharing public spaces — especially workplaces — posed a grave threat to the public health. Its benefits — including a limited program of paid leave and a relatively generous expansion of unemployment insurance — were designed to make not working and sheltering in place possible.

That instinct was right but its execution was dismally flawed. State unemployment systems could not begin to manage the avalanche of claims. The virus flourished in settings — most starkly meatpacking plants — that ploughed ahead as “essential” businesses. And states impatient to open up again did everything they could to discourage workers from accessing the new federal benefits — a point Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend all but conceded in testimony before Congress last week.

From the first hint of the virus to the rush to reopen, Iowa has done perilously little to protect its workers, their families, and their communities. Safe workplaces are pretty clearly defined in the guidelines developed by both the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). But there is nothing in state or federal law that compels employers to follow them, and ample evidence that many are not. Even in the midst of local outbreaks, county health directors lacked the authority to shut down production. “They just don’t get it,” as the Tama County emergency management coordinator, complained in the midst of an outbreak at the National Beef plant there, “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” As Governor Reynolds coldly reminded us in late May: “Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect both the lives and the livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”

Those priorities came into sharper focus this week. In a brief and largely aimless session, the Iowa Legislature offered scarcely a passing reference to the health and economic insecurity facing Iowa’s working families. They did, however, jump to address the insecurity of Iowa employers — offering up blanket immunity from COVID related claims coming from workers or consumers.

The “COVID-19 Response and Back to Business Limited Liability Act” (Senate File 2338) requires that any claims of exposure to the virus meet a standard of “reckless disregard” or “actual malice.” Employers “shall not be held liable for civil damages for any injuries sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 if the act or omission alleged to violate a duty of care was in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or state statute, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure.” Since such regulations or guidelines are virtually non-existent, it is hard to imagine what such threshold might look like.

At a time of such peril and uncertainty, this is a remarkable and damning expression of our state’s priorities. It is a solution in search of a problem; there has been no stampede of frivolous damage claims — in Iowa or elsewhere. And it ignores the more obvious and equitable tack, which is to protect the workers in the first place, and allow them to refuse work (and draw unemployment benefits) if that protection is not sufficient. “Everybody wins when businesses follow clear, science-based guidelines to protect health and safety,” as The New York Times put it in a recent editorial. “Workers and customers are less likely to get exposed to the virus, and businesses are less likely to get exposed to litigation.”

Now, more than ever, our public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward; on whom they protect, and whom they do not. The blanket immunity offered Iowa businesses by SF2338, alongside our abject and continuing failure to offer any meaningful protection for Iowa’s workers, fails that assessment on all counts.

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

Encourage Iowans to seek both jobless, housing benefits

The new rental and mortgage assistance program offers relief in one breath to Iowans economically harmed by COVID-19, and then snatches it away in the next.

Amidst the worst employment crisis since the Great Depression, Governor Kim Reynolds and her colleagues seem fixated not on the magnitude of the crisis, but on the generosity of the CARES Act unemployment programs and the obstacle they apparently pose to getting Iowans back to work.

First, Iowa Workforce Development issued a chilling directive (from which they have now retreated) which very nearly suggested that only those actually laid out by the virus had any claim on unemployment insurance. Now the new “Iowa Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Program,” (which offers rental and mortgage assistance to households “at risk of eviction or foreclosure due to a documented COVID-19 related loss of income”) actually disqualifies those receiving unemployment insurance from applying.

The logic here is difficult to fathom. Those thrown out of work by the pandemic are struggling to make ends meet, and to sustain rent or mortgage payments. Aren’t these exactly the Iowans who should be eligible for a program of rental or mortgage assistance? Instead, the new program offers assistance to “Iowans who have been economically impacted by COVID-19,” in one breath and then snatches it away in the next — penalizing and stigmatizing those most at need by treating receipt of the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) benefit ($600 a week through July 25) like a failed drug test.

But even if we put the savage inequity of this aside, the Governor’s evident distaste for the federal supplements to unemployment insurance is just bad fiscal policy. Let’s do the math. As of this week, 178,619 Iowans are receiving regular unemployment benefits and another 17,545 are receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).  The PUA base benefit is paid for with federal dollars, and recipients under both regular UI and the PUA also get the $600 PUC benefit through July. That’s an inflow of over $120 million a week, from the federal treasury into the pockets of working Iowans.

If we assume an effective state income tax rate of 2.3 percent and effective sales tax rate of 5.3 percent (both based on estimates by the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy for Iowans earning between $22,000 and $40,000/year), that’s a boost to state income tax receipts of $2.8 million dollars a week,[1] and a boost to state and local sales tax receipts of $6.4 million dollars a week. In the seven weeks before the PUC expires July 25, that’s a net revenue of gain of $64.5 million — or enough to pay for the mortgage and rental assistance program (which has been allotted $22 million of Iowa’s CARES Act funds) almost three times over.

And these are conservative estimates. The unemployment totals do not include the over 150,000 UI (including those from the last two weeks) that have been filed but not yet processed. They do not include the retroactive benefits payable to those qualifying for UI. They are based on the minimum monthly benefit under the PUA. And they do not include the stimulus or tax revenue impact of state-funded UI benefits.

For the health and safety of working Iowans, we should be encouraging and enabling as many as possible to qualify for unemployment benefits. And, as long as federal government is picking up the tab, we should jump at the chance to backfill state and local budgets with the tax revenues that accompany such benefits.

[1] The state’s June 3 fiscal update echoes this estimate, attributing a $31.4 million increase in state income tax receipts over the 10-week period from March 19 to June 2 ($3.1 million a week) to withholding from UI benefits. This estimate is slightly higher because it includes the withholding from state-funded benefits as well.

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

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.

Historically high: Jobless claims vs Great Recession

New unemployment claims are trending down, but still rising and in the latest week were still nearly as high as the worst week of the Great Recession.

The pace of new unemployment claims slowed in Iowa to 13,040 for the week ending May 16, but still nearly as high as new claims in the worst week of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the running total of new claims since mid-March — at 313,150 — is about 18 percent of Iowa’s entire labor force.

On top of that, Iowa has slowly begun to process claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federally funded benefits for those ineligible for regular UI. In the week ending May 9, there were 15,219 Iowans on continuing PUA claims and 4,552 new applications.

The PUA has enormous potential for the self-employed, independent contractors, platform or “gig” workers, and new entrants to the labor force. It pays a weekly benefit of between $200 and $590 (depending on earnings and dependents). Once approved, recipients can received up to 39 weeks of benefits — retroactive to early February and running through December. Receipt of PUA benefits brings with it another $600 month in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), the federal top-off that runs through the last week of July.

All of this is funded entirely with federal dollars — making it an important source of economic stimulus for the state as well.

But the rollout of the PUA has been slow. Initial applicants were summarily rejected by Iowa Workforce Development and the first payments did not trickle out until almost two months after the program was put in place. And the number of new and continuing PUA claims in Iowa (just under 20,000) as of this morning is very low given the number of Iowans that could benefit from this program (taken together, those reporting some form of self-employment income and new entrants probably account for about 20 percent of the labor force). Under normal conditions, Iowa pays unemployment claims to only about 41 percent of the unemployed. The PUA could and should extend that coverage dramatically.

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

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.