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.

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

 

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org