Missed opportunities to reform unemployment insurance

Missed opportunities to reform unemployment insurance

Louisiana legislators came into their October special session hoping to address the solvency of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. But instead of passing common-sense reforms, lawmakers simply punted the problem into next year by suspending new taxes on businesses while doing nothing to improve the weekly benefits going to unemployed workers. LBP Policy Analyst Neva Butkus, in a new blog, looks at the opportunities the Legislature missed: 

Louisiana should take advantage of the opportunity to raise benefit levels using money the state can borrow, interest-free, from the federal government. Louisiana’s $247 maximum weekly benefit replaces just 33% of the average worker’s wages in Louisiana. The legislature should increase benefits to replace at least 50% of workers’ wages and implement a $370 maximum benefit which would put us ahead of neighbor states such as Mississippi and Alabama, but would still keep us below Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. With the $600 weekly benefit gone, a boost to weekly benefits would be a lifeline to thousands of Louisiana families. 

Louisiana also should do more to hold businesses accountable who skirt their payroll tax responsibilities by misclassifying workers as contractors when they are true employees: 

Under current law, companies that misclassify their workers only get a written warning for their first offense. House Bill 34, which died in the House Labor Committee in the special session, would have encouraged more businesses to follow the law by allowing penalties of up to $5,000 against companies that intentionally misclassify their employees. Having more companies paying into the trust fund – and more workers eligible for benefits if they become unemployed – would improve the solvency of the trust fund and create a stronger safety net in hard times. 

 

Racist cash assistance policies impact Southern states
Public debates about cash-assistance programs have been tinged with racism since before then-President Ronald Reagan railed against “welfare queens.” States have substantial control over their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants, which include cash assistance, and have used this discretion to reduce benefits for low-income parents with children. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Southern states, where the legacy of slavery persists. Ali Safawi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes

Low TANF benefits disproportionately affect what’s available to Black children, 55 percent of whom now live in a state with benefit levels at or below 20 percent of the poverty line. But these low benefits also affect Latinx and white children: 41 percent of Latinx children and 40 percent of white children live in these low-benefit states. While benefits have declined in all states, the decline has been most dramatic in the South. About 3 million Black children (31 percent of the national total) live in four southern states — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — that have benefits at or below 17 percent of the poverty line for a family of three, or about $308 a month. Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have not increased benefits since the early 1990s, and benefits in Texas remain extremely low despite small annual increases since 2010.

 

Rural areas feeling delayed impact of Covid-19
The early waves of the Covid-19 pandemic hit hardest in big cities like Seattle, New Orleans and New York. However, the latest surge is affecting rural, less populated areas where health care resources are often scarce. The New York Times’ Lauren Leatherby

The coronavirus was slow to come to Foster County, N.D., a community of just over 3,000 people in the eastern part of the state. When virus cases surged in the Northeast in the spring, the county recorded just one positive case. When national case counts peaked in mid-July, it had recorded just two more. But by Tuesday, about one in every 20 residents had tested positive for the virus. More than half of those cases were reported in the past two weeks. Most of the worst outbreaks in the United States right now are in rural places like Foster County. Where earlier peaks saw virus cases concentrated mainly in cities and suburbs, the current surge is the most geographically dispersed yet, and it is hitting hard remote counties that often lack a hospital or other critical health care resources.


Getting counted in a crisis

Communities of color, low-income communities, immigrants and other vulnerable populations are always the hardest to count in the decennial U.S. Census. But the health and economic crises of 2020 have exacerbated this concern. The pandemic, natural disasters and other events have made families more transient and therefore more likely to not be counted or be counted with less-than-perfect data, which can have a significant impact on federal funding for states and equitable representation in Congress. Mike Schneider of the Associated Press reports

In large parts of Louisiana, which was battered by two hurricanes, census takers didn’t even hit 94% of the households they needed to reach. In Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation on the Arizona-New Mexico border that was ravaged by COVID-19, census takers only reached 98.9%. … There are also concerns about the quality of the data obtained. The second-most accurate information after self-responses comes from household members being interviewed by census takers. When census takers can’t reach someone at home, they turn to less-accurate information from neighbors, landlords and administrative records, the latter of which have been in widespread use for the first time this year. Information was obtained by these methods for almost 40% of the census takers’ caseload, according to the Census Bureau.


Number of the Day

130,000–210,000 The number of avoidable Covid-19 deaths in America. (Source: National Center for Disaster Preparedness)