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Coronavirus jobless crisis: Expand unemployment insurance benefits

Right now, the COVID-19 health emergency is forcing countless workers across the country into full or partial unemployment. Hardest hit are employees in the retail and service sectors, jobs that already offer low pay and few benefits. And the worst is yet to come: Nearly 80 million jobs are at risk due to coronavirus, Moody’s Analytics estimates. Goldman Sachs estimated that an unprecedented 2.25 million Americans will have filed for unemployment last week alone.

These job losses will soon ricochet across the economy, affecting millions of families. We know firsthand from working on the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 jobs crisis that we don’t have time to set up new programs or processes to give immediate help to workers who lose their jobs. We already have the systems we need in place: now, we must bolster them with existing federal aid, and urgently. 

The simplest and smartest way to help laid-off workers is to increase the current unemployment insurance benefits program (UI). These programs, which operate in all 50 states, typically pay weekly unemployment benefits equal to 45% of a worker’s wages. They are funded by an assessment on employers in that state, and are intentionally designed to not be overly generous so as to not discourage workers from searching for work. 

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