President Joe Biden could stop Republican-led states from fully cutting federal unemployment benefits, at least according to labor advocates and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but Biden seems uninterested.
More than a dozen Republican governors have said they’ll cancel federal unemployment programs, which provide an extra $300 per week plus benefits for gig workers, because beneficiaries supposedly aren’t eager enough to take jobs.
Sanders told Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in a letter Thursday that the law creating the program for gig workers actually gives the federal government no leeway to let states kill the benefits.
“It is critical that the Department of Labor does everything in its power to ensure that jobless Americans continue to receive this aid as the law intended,” Sanders wrote.
The Labor Department offered a noncommittal response.
“Secretary Walsh and the Biden Administration have been doing all they can to take concrete action to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks as we know unemployment benefits have served as a vital lifeline for workers throughout the pandemic ― to help them buy food, pay rent and remain healthy,” a department spokesman said in an email to HuffPost on Thursday.
It’s not a huge surprise that the Biden administration isn’t jumping into a fight with Republican governors over the benefits. Red states started announcing cuts last week amid widespread complaints of a “worker shortage.” Biden has denied that benefits are causing a worker shortage, but on Monday, he reminded workers that they’re not allowed to keep their benefits if they refuse suitable job offers.
“If you are receiving unemployment benefits and you are offered a suitable job, you can’t refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits,” Biden said in a special appearance at the White House.
More than a million workers will start losing federal benefits next month as states cease participating in programs that lawmakers intended to last until September. Many of the workers will simply revert to regular state benefits, meaning they’ll get a few hundred dollars or less per week, just without the extra $300.
But most of the affected workers are enrolled in federal long-term benefits or the special benefits program for people ineligible for regular unemployment because they hadn’t been laid off from a traditional payroll job. It’s called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. Congress created the program as a backstop for regular state benefits, which don’t cover workers like ride-share drivers. They will be cut off entirely.
Here’s why Sanders says Biden shouldn’t let those benefits go: The part of the law that created the gig worker program — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — says the U.S. labor secretary “shall” pay those benefits to all eligible workers. In federal law, “shall” is a strong word implying the government can’t decide not to do something.
The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, wrote to Walsh earlier this week saying the Labor Department must either force states to keep the PUA benefits or pay them itself.
“Without exercising one of these options, or developing their own ability to take and pay claims, DOL 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,” NELP said.
Sanders has embraced the NELP analysis, saying that not only must the government continue paying PUA claims, it has to pair them with the extra $300, too. Workers enrolled in long-term benefits, which states are also canceling, could switch over to PUA.
But Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who helped write the law and has said the Labor Department should explore its options, stopped short of endorsing the Sanders approach.
“We want them to use every bit of legal authority to protect workers,” Wyden told HuffPost on Thursday, declining to specifically endorse the idea of forcing benefits to continue.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress created the weekly supplement, the gig worker benefits, plus a program for people whose jobless spells outlast state benefits. States voluntarily opt in to each program through an agreement with the Labor Department.
Congress initially added $600 to weekly benefits, which Republicans incorrectly predicted would prevent hiring. After the $600 expired last summer, the Trump administration unilaterally created a Lost Wages Assistance program, giving workers an extra $300 for six weeks. (Congress subsequently added a $300 supplement in December.) Some questioned the Trump administration’s legal authority to create the wage assistance program, but even Republican states embraced it. The Biden administration, at least so far, seems unwilling to go out on a limb to help workers in a similar way.
The law does appear to obligate the Labor Department to make sure eligible individuals receive the PUA benefits, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-director of the Georgetown University law school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. Someone who gets cut off could sue.
“There’s a plausible case to be made through a court of law that the Biden administration needs to get them these payments through some state agreement,” Dutta-Gupta said.