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.
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.
 U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 10-20. March 12, 2020
Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.