Millions of jobless workers in Republican-led states across the U.S. are growing increasingly worried that they soon will not be able to afford rent, medicine, and other basic necessities as GOP governors rush to cut off pandemic-related unemployment benefits, a widely condemned attack on struggling people that the Biden administration insists it is powerless to stop.
At least 22 Republican governors so far have moved to withdraw from a federal program that boosted regular unemployment checks by $300 per week to help jobless people weather the ongoing economic crisis.
Of those Republican-led states, 19 are also ending their participation in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — federal initiatives that provide an extension for people who have exhausted their state-level benefits and offer aid to gig workers and others who are typically ineligible.
To justify stripping a crucial lifeline from the jobless, the Republican leaders of Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, South Dakota, and other states have falsely claimed that the federal unemployment programs are so generous they are dissuading people from rejoining the workforce — a narrative that ignores a slew of other relevant factors, from the low wages on offer to lack of child care to health concerns.
“Many are asking whether expanded unemployment benefits are damaging the labor market by keeping workers from taking jobs. There is no compelling evidence of this,” said Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute. “Nevertheless, many Republican-led states are preparing to cancel pandemic UI benefits. This will not just hurt workers who can’t find work or can’t work right now, it will hurt the economy in these states, because those benefits are supporting spending. It’s terrible economics.”
According to The Century Foundation, 3.6 million jobless workers across the 22 Republican-led states are set to lose a combined $21.7 billion in benefits due to the GOP governors’ efforts, which will begin to take effect as early as June 12 — nearly three months before the unemployment programs are set to expire on September 6.
“I got a knot in the pit of my stomach because I just don’t know how I’m going to make it work,” said Mary Baker, a jobless worker in Texas, recalling her emotions as she listened to GOP Governor Greg Abbott announce that the state is ending the federal $300-per-week boost to unemployment benefits on June 26.
“I can’t just go take a $12-an-hour job. That’s going to stop the unemployment, but it’s still not going to pay my bills,” said Baker, who told the Tribune that she will likely have to stop buying her insulin and cut back on groceries to make ends meet.
Nequia Nichole Fugate, a Tennessee resident who worked in child care before the pandemic hit, told The Guardian that she is “really anxious and in a panic since the announcement from” Republican Governor Bill Lee.
“I can’t believe this would happen during a pandemic, these benefits were the only thing helping me get by,” said Fugate. “I’m going to be without a phone, a car, gas, groceries and money to pay for my medication. I’m currently in between housing as well. Everyone has just been surviving the best they can. A majority of us don’t have medical insurance, let alone a safety net of savings to fall back on.”
Warning that the Republican cutbacks will worsen the immense suffering and hardship that jobless workers are already experiencing, progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have pressured the Biden administration to do everything in its power to ensure the benefits continue reaching eligible people regardless of GOP governors’ actions.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last week, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that the Biden administration has both a moral and legal obligation to keep distributing benefits under the pandemic unemployment programs, which are funded entirely by the federal government.
“Workers who lack access to child care, have lost employer-sponsored health insurance, and fear for their health and safety as we work to get every American vaccinated are entitled to these benefits,” Sanders wrote. “They will be forced into poverty — either with poor jobs with unfair wages or no income at all — if you fail to provide these benefits.”
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) sketched out a similar argument in a separate letter to Walsh earlier this month. If the Labor Department fails to guarantee that eligible people continue receiving benefits, the group argued, the agency “will not only cause significant harm to our most vulnerable, it will be in direct violation of their duty to provide PUA benefits under the CARES Act,” a coronavirus relief law enacted in March.
But unnamed Biden administration officials have told media outlets in recent days that their hands are tied, claiming that any effort by the Labor Department to compel states to distribute the benefits — or send out the aid itself — would be illegal.
“There is nothing we can do,” one anonymous administration official told CNN on recently.
According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration has “scrambled to devise a way to keep paying heightened unemployment benefits to an estimated 3.6 million Americans who stand to lose them soon in Republican-led states, but Labor Department officials have come to believe that the law does not allow them to do so.”
Francisco Díez-Buzo, a worker justice policy advocate at the Center for Popular Democracy, voiced outrage in response to the Biden administration’s position.
“The president and Department of Labor have an obligation to provide benefits whether states want to or not,” Díez-Buzo said. “All the talk about worker power and none of the bare minimum actions needed to make it happen. Honestly, this is shameful.”