With 25 Republican States opting out of federal unemployment benefits, the country’s “out-of-work” segment has become subject to non-uniform modes of assistance. The aid received by unemployed workers now depends on their area of residence.
The GOP states have announced to discontinue availing many unemployment assistance programs, particularly the weekly grant of $300 which was announced by Congress post the pandemic. Since the rest of the country will continue receiving these benefits till September 2021, many have expressed concern over the existence of 2 contrasting unemployment policies within the same country. However, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Project, Jenna Gerry, has rightly pointed out that the scenario was no different before Covid-19 because the US never had a federal unemployment program in the first place. Every state had its outline concerning the duration, eligibility criteria, and level of assistance granted to the unemployed workers.
Many states like Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina have been striving to reduce the period for which unemployment benefits are made available to their residents, long before the pandemic started. These states, and many others, decreased the maximum allowed duration for unemployment insurance to less than the national standard of 26 weeks, between the years 2011 and 2013.
Others like Tennessee, Ohio, and Arizona have been introducing bills for shortening the duration of unemployment assistance ever since the pandemic started. Republicans in favor of this bill believe that such measures are drastically affecting small businesses and should therefore be stopped.
Following the footsteps of Florida, Tennessee is looking forward to linking the duration of assistance with the rate of unemployment prevailing in the state. However, such a move on part of the local government would be detrimental to minorities, especially people of color. Reason being, that this community is subject to a comparatively higher rate of unemployment, whereas the period for availing benefits would be tied to the overall rate that exists in the state.
Although the 25 states that have voluntarily opted out of unemployment benefits, seem to be one group concerning their decision, in reality, there is a fine line that divides the two. One group including states like Florida, Georgia, and Alabama have opposed assistance for joblessness since the very beginning. This group offered very few benefits to unemployed workers even before Covid-19. Not only this but applying and qualifying for this form of aid has been quite a struggle in itself for the residents.
The other group comprising of Northwestern states like North Dakota and Montana has been generous towards the jobless sector before the pandemic but has cut down on the unemployment benefits in the aftermath of Covid-19. One reason suggested by Andrew Stettner, who is an unemployment insurance expert at the Century Foundation, is that the state authorities initially conceptualized seasonal laborers, such as construction workers who are understandably out of work in winters, when they thought about the unemployed sector, but post Covid-19, the category of beneficiaries has changed drastically.
However, the fact which draws attention is that besides refusing the weekly unemployment assistance of $300, 20 out of the aforementioned GOP states have also announced their withdrawal from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs. The former offered benefits to individuals who wouldn’t have classified as “unemployed” under normal circumstances, e.g contractors, whereas the latter allowed an extension in the period for availing unemployment benefits.
The combined effect of halting all these forms of aid will be a loss of benefits worth $25.2 billion. This might be a significant blow to the unemployed sector.
Although the US may always have had non-uniform unemployment policies, the one time a federal program was announced, states opting out of it and choosing not to avail the billions of dollars offered to their residents is a unique event that would be remembered in the American political history.