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 Falls 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.

 

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.

Good start on Iowa unemployment insurance in health emergency

Actions by the state are welcome news. The four-week break in the legislative session is a good opportunity to look for other ways to strengthen the system to protect working families.

With widespread layoffs anticipated or already occurring in key sectors of the state’s economy, it is welcome news that the state has relaxed eligibility standards for receiving unemployment insurance benefits. In our IPP blogs of March 14 and March 15 we identified key changes that states could make fully in accord with U.S. Department of Labor guidance for increasing program flexibility to deal with the pandemic.

On Monday, Governor Kim Reynolds announced key changes by Iowa Workforce Development to the state’s UI system that align with these recommendations:

•    Work search requirements are waived for individuals filing an unemployment insurance claim as a result of COVID-19.

•    Individuals who have to leave their job because they are ill, because they are self-isolating due to exposure to COVID-19 or because they are caring for an ill family member, or because the business has shut down due to COVID-19 will be eligible for UI as long as they meet other standard requirements — having worked for six of the last 18 months and earned at least $2,500 during that period. Workers are expected to utilize sick days, paid leave, or telecommuting options if they are available.

•    Employers will not be charged for any employee receiving COVID-19 related unemployment benefits; i.e, their future insurance rates will not be raised.

Employees wanting to find more information on these provisions or to determine if their particular situation qualifies can find some answers on the Iowa Workforce Development website here.

The U.S. Department of Labor also reminded states that two other forms of flexibility may be helpful in the current situation: waiving the one-week waiting period before receiving benefits and establishing a Short Time Compensation (STC) program. Fortunately, Iowa does not have a waiting period, and already has an STC program called Voluntary Shared Work. The latter program allows the employer to reduce work hours for several employees instead of laying off a smaller number, with the employees then eligible for partial UI benefits to replace most of the wages lost due to reduced hours.

Voluntary Shared Work can be an important tool for employers and employees alike, allowing the business to keep trained workers and allowing more workers to retain their employment connection. In order to utilize the shared work provisions, an employer must apply. Employers who have not yet instituted work sharing should be encouraged to do so; they can find more information from Iowa Workforce Development here.

These actions by Iowa Workforce Development are welcome news. Federal emergency legislation just passed may provide additional flexibility to states.

The four-week break in the state legislative session is a good opportunity to look for other ways to strengthen the state system to protect working families who are affected in the current emergency. That will help the Iowa economy to come out stronger on the other side of the crisis.

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

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Time for state to act

170118_capitol_170603-4x4The Pelosi-Mnuchin stimulus package that passed the U.S. House on Friday includes many measures to protect ordinary Americans who may see lost wages or who may need to stay away from work because someone in the family needs attention.

According to The Washington Post:

“The agreement reached Friday is primarily aimed at expanding the safety net to cope with the potentially catastrophic economic impact of the coronavirus. In addition to ensuring free coronavirus testing, the plan would dramatically increase several benefits, particularly family medical leave and paid sick leave, while also bolstering unemployment insurance; spending on health insurance for the poor; and food programs for children and the elderly.”[1]

The food program expansion “nullifies existing work requirements on the food stamp program.”[2] The medical leave and family leave section will allow up to two-thirds of salary to a great number of employees including full tax credits from employment tax for self-employed individuals.[3] The federal share of Medicaid is boosted and unemployment insurance is strengthened.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the Medicaid boost means an additional $240 million is available for Iowa.[4] Noted CBPP’s Jennifer Sullivan:

The House COVID-19 bill’s temporary Medicaid funding boost, if in effect for all of calendar year 2020, would deliver roughly $35 billion in immediate, needed relief to states, which will face growing costs due to the virus and a likely economic downturn. … Similar measures have been a critical part of economic stimulus packages under both Democratic and Republican administrations….

The bill, expected to pass the Senate in a few days, addresses what many expect to be a downturn in the economy caused by the pandemic reaching U.S. shores.

Responsible actions at the federal level require a state response as well. Iowa Policy Project blog posts in recent days have noted good opportunities:

First, Iowa needs improvements in the unemployment system: (1) Relax the job search requirements to enable individuals forced into unemployment by the virus to collect UI benefits; (2) Allow individuals forced to take a leave of absence to collect UI during that period; (3) Establish procedures for individuals losing a job for health safety reasons or to care for a family member with the virus to qualify for UI, and (4) Establish rules under which employers’ unemployment experience rating is not harmed by virus-related layoffs.[5]

Second, Iowans need strong Medicaid and SNAP benefits now more than ever. The safety net helps us all — not just current beneficiaries, but also those on the edge of financial security and the general economy. Any legislation, such as SF430 and HF2030, that imposes new bureaucratic hurdles for struggling Iowans not only will take food and doctor’s visits away when people need them the most, but hurt local communities as well.[6]

[1] Erica WernerMike DeBonisPaul Kane and. Jeff Stein. The Washington Post, “House passes coronavirus economic relief package with Trump’s support,” March 14, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2020/03/13/paid-leave-democrats-trump-deal-coronavirus/
[2] Ibid

[3] H. R. 6201 Making emergency supplemental appropriations for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, and for other purposes. Page 93 and 103. https://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20200309/BILLS-116hr6201-SUS.pdf

[4] Jennifer Sullivan, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Medicaid Funding Boost for States Can’t Wait,” updated March 13, 2020. https://bit.ly/3d1jPBQ

[5] Peter Fisher. IowaPolicyPoints.org blog post,Protecting workers from coronavirus impacts.” March 14, 2020.

[6] Natalie Veldhouse. IowaPolicyPoints.org blog post, “Make Iowa resilient: Strengthen supports for working families.” March 13, 2020.

osterberg_david_095115David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project and is a researcher with the organization.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Protecting workers from coronavirus impacts

Iowa lawmakers should act now to bolster the safety net that will help workers, both to reduce the spread of coronavirus and to alleviate the coming economic hardships.

Widespread cancellation of public events and travel and the closure of public schools and universities across the state will deeply affect many Iowa workers. Some will lose jobs. Others will have hours reduced, particularly in the hospitality sector: hotels, restaurants, bars, event centers, tourist attractions, movie theaters and other entertainment and sports venues.

Those are among the jobs with the lowest hourly wages and are the least likely to include health insurance and sick leave benefits. Workers with less than a high-school education, women, and workers of color are over-represented in those occupations. That makes them more vulnerable in the current crisis.

Fortunately, a set of safety-net programs is already in place. It is designed to both help those workers and mitigate the impact on the Iowa economy: unemployment insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid in particular.

But these programs are not as strong or as comprehensive as they should be, and the impacts of the virus present additional problems. The Iowa Legislature should act now to bolster the effectiveness of those programs, both to help reduce the spread of the virus and to alleviate the economic hardship that is certain to become widespread.

First and most important, we need to make it possible for sick workers to stay home without losing their livelihood. If Congress fails to enact emergency paid sick leave, the state should step up to fill the void. The current crisis highlights the inadequacy of the current system.

The United States is nearly the only developed economy that fails to mandate paid sick leave. As a result, low-wage workers in our country and our state cannot afford to stay home; they have to show up for work and risk infecting customers and other workers. The failure to mandate sick leave for fear of imposing a cost on employers or taxpayers now threatens to contribute to a much wider economic cost, as the reaction to the virus threatens the livelihoods not only of low wage workers but of a wide swath of Iowa businesses. A recession made worse by inadequate public policies will cost us all.

Second, we need to make certain that our current system of unemployment insurance (UI) is adapted to the special problems presented by the virus pandemic. Unemployment insurance is not a substitute for paid sick leave; workers who lose their job because of illness are generally not eligible for UI. Someone put out of work must be ready and able to work and must actively seek work in order to qualify for UI benefits. The state can and should relax those work search requirements because of the post-pandemic circumstances.

Another problem arises when a business temporarily affected by the loss of customers puts workers on a leave of absence. In Iowa, a worker on a leave of absence is not considered unemployed. This must change. States do have discretion in this area, as outlined in a recent memo from the U.S. Department of Labor, which provides guidance in the case of an individual placed on leave because an employer temporarily shuts down due to COVID-19, or an individual is quarantined and will return to work with that employer at the end of the quarantine:

Federal law would permit a state to treat the separation here as a temporary layoff. States have significant discretion to determine able, available, and work search requirements, and they can determine that the suitable work for this individual is the job he or she intends to return to after business resumes. As provided in 20 CFR 604.5(a)(3), individuals are able to and available for work if their employer temporarily laid them off and the individuals remain available to work only for that employer.[1]

The Department of Labor has recognized other situations that can arise and provides further guidance on how states can adjust their UI program for the new circumstances. In the case where “[a]n individual is quarantined by a medical professional under government direction or leaves employment due to a reasonable risk of exposure or infection (i.e.; self-quarantine) or to care for a family member and either does not intend to return to the employer or the employer will not allow the individual to return.” In that case, federal law gives states discretion “to determine whether the separation here is a quit or a discharge and whether the circumstances are allowable under the state’s good cause/just cause provisions.”

Finally, employers should not be penalized for layoffs caused by this public health crisis; they should not have their experience rating downgraded and future UI insurance premiums raised in these circumstances.

Iowa legislators take need to step up and make these changes to our unemployment system rules:

  • Relax the job search requirements to enable individuals forced into unemployment by the virus to collect UI benefits;
  • Allow individuals to collect UI during a forced leave of absence;
  • Establish procedures for individuals to qualify for UI after losing a job for health safety reasons or to care for a family member with the virus, and
  • Establish rules to help employers, so that their unemployment experience rating is not harmed by virus-related layoffs.

These changes should be widely publicized, along with a reminder to employers that Iowa does have a short-time compensation program (work sharing) which can be a useful way of allowing workers to receive partial UI benefits when their hours have been cut. These changes are needed to help workers weather this economic situation, to facilitate taking workers out of employment when their continued work would jeopardize public health, and to reduce the impact of an economic downturn on Iowa businesses.

[1]   U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 10-20. March 12, 2020

2010-PF-2sqPeter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Tax plan harms most seniors

For seniors especially, new tax-cut promises are hollow — just like, if the Governor gets her way, the promises that came with the 2010 constitutional amendment.

iowacapitol-rotundaSeniors in particular should be wary of Governor Reynolds’ tax-shift plan because, like most Iowans they would, in general, see little or no benefit and could even be worse off.

The list of those harmed by this plan is significant already.

  • Poor and moderate-income Iowans will lose income and services.
  • Environmental and outdoor recreation advocates who sought a sales-tax increase to fund their priorities will get far less than they expected because the Governor proposes to change the rules.
  • Education, law enforcement and other services will suffer with net losses in general fund revenues that the governor is demanding.

Add seniors to the list. It is clear seniors are among the losers in this legislation unless they are (1) rich or (2) not concerned about the public services that will be lost.

Iowans at low and moderate incomes already can count on paying a greater share of their income in state and local tax under the plan. That’s because it trades a sales tax increase, which disproportionately affects those at lower incomes, for cuts in the income tax and property tax, which helps wealthier filers.

To get her way at the expense of low-income Iowans no matter their age, the Governor wants to change the law that set up the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010. The amendment directed the next three-eighths-cent sales tax to a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. That law, set up to implement the fund, said trust fund moneys would “supplement and not replace” appropriations for the purposes named for the fund.

That is important on two counts. Besides throwing aside the expectation of all of the designated sales tax increase providing new money for those purposes, her plan shortchanges the specified purposes, cutting trails, REAP, and much of the funding for the Department of Natural Resources.

Beyond the formula change that should concern anyone who voted for the amendment in 2010, seniors in particular should be wary because the Governor is embracing the voters’ consent to a tax increase only if she can cut other taxes by a greater amount. Her proposed income tax cuts are guaranteed to hinder Iowa’s long-term commitments to other services, from education funding for grandchildren’s schools, to corrections to safety-net supports — and make the overall tax system less fair to the poor and middle-income Iowans and especially seniors.

A bad deal for seniors

The Governor’s plan would raise the sales tax by a full penny, not just three-eighths of a cent for the trust fund, and use the majority of the increased revenue to cut income taxes. That would be a bad deal for most seniors.

The Iowa Department of Revenue has estimated that an additional penny sales tax would cost the average lower income household in Iowa without children about $40 on average (with a range of $30 to $50). That includes all households making less than $30,000. Those in the $30,000 to $50,000 gross income range would pay $68 to $90 more.  Data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy indicate that 40 percent of Iowa households earn under $50,000.[1]

But estimates from the Iowa Department of Revenue show that the income tax cuts would not provide any measurable benefit for the lowest-income 40 percent of seniors — an average tax savings of just one dollar, for those with taxable income under $10,000. Because of favorable tax treatment for seniors, many currently pay no income tax and thus would get no benefit.

Those earning $50,000 to $75,000 total income represent the middle 20 percent of Iowa households. They would pay $100 to $120 more a year in sales tax under the Reynolds plan, but save only about $33 in income taxes. At least 60 percent of seniors, in other words, pay more under this proposal — and they are paying more largely to finance bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Iowans.

Seniors count on many public services that are funded by state and local government. So while seniors largely will not benefit on the revenue side, they will also lose on the expenditure side, in lost services. These services cannot avoid cuts if the Governor gets her way. Under her proposal, there will be about $175 million less revenue in the general fund each year, which means less funding for education, health care, and other services.

A key reason most seniors do not benefit

It also is helpful to remember that many seniors have several built-in exceptions to income tax. These exceptions make new income-tax cuts meaningless or minimal to them, unless they are quite well off already:

  • All Social Security benefits already are exempt from state tax in Iowa.
  • The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.
  • Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.
  • While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

In short, under current Iowa tax law, seniors get very substantial income tax breaks.

For seniors especially, new tax-cut promises are hollow — just like, if the Governor gets her way, the promises that came with the 2010 campaign for a constitutional amendment for a sales tax increase to fund water quality and recreation.

 

[1]   Those with taxable income under $10,000 account for 41 percent of senior tax filers for Tax Year 2022, according to Table 5 in the Iowa Department of Revenue memo to Jeff Robinson on the impact of SSB3116 on seniors, Feb. 14, 2020. Those with $10,000 to $20,000 taxable income account for another 17 percent of senior taxpayers.

2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

 

osterberg_david_095115David Osterberg is IPP’s environmental researcher and co-founded the organization in 2001.