“Hey, remember the pandemic economy? How could you not, right? In early 2020, millions of people lost their jobs in the blink of an eye, through no fault of their own. In the United States, their subsequent attempts to get help from the government overwhelmed unemployment offices across the country, revealing the system to be fundamentally broken. The infrastructure was bad, the benefits insufficient, and the entire scheme next to impossible to navigate.
And then, something remarkable happened: The federal government stepped in to shore things up. It added extra dollars to state unemployment benefits to make sure people could get by and pay their bills. It expanded the pool of people who were eligible for benefits, so workers such as freelancers and contractors could access them, too. While far from perfect, the extra efforts to help the unemployed made a real difference in people’s lives and played a part in the country averting a deeper and longer recession.
It felt, for a while, like maybe there would be momentum to finally address the issues in America’s unemployment system. So many people had experienced first-hand just what a disaster it was on a massive scale, from outdated administrative systems to inadequate benefits. It seemed obvious that this hybrid state-federal program that had left so much discretion up to individual states just didn’t work.
And then … America’s UI setup didn’t really get fixed, because it never does.”
“As workers stare down the barrel of another potential recession — and the layoffs that would accompany it — the problems that dogged unemployment insurance before the pandemic, many of which have persisted for decades, remain. Most of the momentum to repair the system has dissipated.
Congress and the White House allocated $2 billion to the Department of Labor in 2021 to try to help states update their unemployment systems, combat fraud, and promote equitable access to benefits. But that funding and the accompanying efforts can only go so far, and they are aimed at administrative fixes, not policy fixes. The benefit amount a worker is entitled to, how long the benefits last, and the requirements to get them largely depend on which state that worker lives in. Many states are still digging themselves out from under the last crisis. Given the narrative that has taken hold around unemployment during this most recent economic recovery — that UI kept people out of the workforce, that too much government assistance contributed to inflation — it’s not clear what kind of appetite would exist in Congress to help workers if and when another recession hits.”
“The point of unemployment insurance is to replace income for people who have lost their jobs and keep them attached to the labor market. It’s meant to be a support for the broader economy in times of economic downturn, too, and keep consumer spending going. If I lose my job and can’t pay my rent, it is a problem for me and for my landlord and for the sandwich guy I no longer buy from down the street.”
“UI is financed through state and federal payroll taxes that are supposed to cover both administrative systems and the benefits themselves. Many states have kept those taxes quite low, leaving the system chronically underfunded and resulting in luck-of-the-draw situations for workers applying for UI, depending on where they live.
The average weekly benefit paid out in regular unemployment insurance nationwide was about $385 in the 12 months ending in September. But if you look at Mississippi, for example, the average benefit is in the low $200 range, while it’s now above $600 for Washington state.
These benefits do not move with inflation, either.”
“Many UI offices are understaffed, are still dealing with pandemic-era backlogs, and are using outdated technologies to administer benefits. Or, they’ve updated their technologies and they’re intentionally designed to make the whole thing harder for workers to navigate, or the update was just bad.”