Democrats did not make much of a fuss when federal unemployment compensation expired this month for 7.5 million workers. After all, President Joe Biden had said it was appropriate for the extra benefits to expire.
But on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announced she would introduce a bill to bring back federal benefits for the long-term unemployed and gig workers, two groups that are normally not covered by regular unemployment insurance.
“I’ve been very disappointed on both sides of the aisle that we’ve just allowed pandemic unemployment assistance to completely lapse, when we are clearly not fully recovered from the consequences of the pandemic,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday.
The Ocasio-Cortez bill would continue the two programs through January 2022, but would not bring back the extra $300 per week that also expired on Sept. 6. Though the $300 received the most attention, the gig worker benefits filled a major gap in the unemployment system, which only covers workers with significant earnings in traditional payroll jobs.
The legislation has virtually no chance of becoming law, which Ocasio-Cortez admitted during the town hall, saying she was “not entirely sure the prospects of it.” Still, it was worth a try.
“I just simply could not allow the pandemic unemployment assistance to expire without at least one of us trying and introducing legislation to make it happen,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
When federal unemployment benefits enacted in response to the Great Recession expired in 2013, Democrats pushed for weeks for a reauthorization, holding press conferences and a futile Senate vote. This time around they let the benefits go almost without a peep.
“I was surprised that we did not hear about a bill being introduced earlier as the delta surge complicated returns to work,” said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment insurance policy expert with The Century Foundation.
The Ocasio-Cortez bill to revive the benefits is the only one, even though millions more people were cut off this month than the 1.3 million affected in 2013. (A big reason for the larger number, however, is that more people received benefits in the first place thanks to broader eligibility rules.)
But Democrats have pivoted from pandemic relief to more permanent changes to the federal safety net. They’re working on a budget bill that could expand Medicare, reduce child care costs and set a national standard for universal kindergarten, among other things. The bill doesn’t included changes to the federal-state unemployment system, even though it struggled to deliver benefits during the pandemic.
Ocasio-Cortez said unemployment remained one of the top issues her office hears about from constituents. She encouraged them to call other lawmakers to build support for restoring the benefits.
“Political will is something that can be built with pressure,” she said.