CORONAVIRUS

People Can’t Just Get Back To Work

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin thinks unemployed Americans are just sitting around. Families are trying to survive a pandemic.

President Donald Trump, his economic advisers and many other Republicans say Americans need to get back to work, even as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads throughout the United States. And they’re trying now to force people back on the job by drastically cutting unemployment benefits meant to help those who couldn’t work because of the pandemic.

“We’re not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said over the weekend, suggesting it’s the generosity of unemployment insurance that’s keeping people out of the workforce.

But people aren’t just staying home because they want to or the money is so good. They’re stuck there. Millions of Americans are caring for children whose schools, camps or day care centers are closed; many others at high risk if they contract COVID-19 can’t safely go back to work. Americans aren’t sitting at home enjoying their government-sponsored vacation. They’re trying to survive.

Roughly 8 million Americans who are getting unemployment benefits aren’t looking for work right now because of their caregiving responsibilities, according to a survey released earlier this week from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult. About 6 in 10 of these caregivers are looking after children; the rest are caring for a sick or older relative.

In Prescott, Arizona, Laurin Scarpelli has been at her home since March 8, looking after her 6-year-old and 9-year-old. Both kids have cystic fibrosis. Scarpelli herself has type-1 diabetes. “We have a full family of people at high risk,” she told HuffPost.

At the start of the pandemic, Scarpelli and her partner took unpaid leave from their jobs working in group homes for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But their leave ran out and they were both fired, losing their health insurance.

Scarpelli and her partner have been getting by since May on the expanded unemployment benefits that were enacted to help people deal with the coronavirus-fueled recession. On Friday, that money is set to run out.

Laurin Scarpelli and her daughter
Laurin Scarpelli and her daughter

Scarpelli said they have enough money to pay rent in August, but after that, they don’t have a plan. The rent on their house is $1,500 a month; her diabetes medication costs about $1,000 a month. Without the enhanced unemployment insurance, she and her partner will be receiving about $400 a week in state benefits combined. 

“After September, when things are running out, we won’t have enough to pay rent, utilities, our phone bills, medical supplies, plus groceries for the kids, all their special needs,” said Scarpelli, who added that even if Arizona decides to reopen the schools, her kids won’t be able to attend because of their medical condition. The risks are too great.

Even if Scarpelli could find some kind of relatively safe paid work, she can’t leave every day for a full-time job. She’s gearing up for another round of home-schooling and remote learning. Of course, that is if she’s able to keep the family in their house.

“It’s scary right now,” Scarpelli said. “The safest place to be is at home. If you’re going to lose your home, what do you have?”

The survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center was conducted over two-and-a-half weeks in June and July. Fifteen hundred people receiving unemployment insurance participated. 

Most of those surveyed had been laid off or furloughed from their jobs, but 6% reported quitting because of caregiving responsibilities. And now while 75% of those folks are spending most of their time actively looking for work, about a quarter said they’re primarily caregiving ― that translates to about 8 million Americans.

Parents have been struggling throughout this crisis, and there’s no end in sight. With the current increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths, it’s not clear if schools will reopen this fall. Already some have announced hybrid schedules or fully remote learning.

Some parents can work remotely, but others, particularly low-income and “essential” workers, have jobs they must do in person. Women, who are shouldering a disproportionate burden of care at home, may be unable to do remote work even if their job would allow it.

Many of the adult care centers attended by elderly folks are also shuttered. That puts more pressure on people who need to look after older loved ones. Also, millions of people remain sick, often with family looking after them. 

People say money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy safety. Laurin Scarpelli

On top of the caregiving issue, many people can’t go back to work yet because there aren’t enough jobs. Job listings are down significantly from this time last year, according to Indeed.com. In some sectors hard hit by the pandemic ― like hospitality ― the declines have been especially grim.

And despite Mnuchin’s claims, most economists say it’s not the size of pandemic-related unemployment benefits that’s keeping people at home. In his recent research, former U.S. Treasury economist Ernie Tedeschi found no evidence that enhanced benefits were a drag on the economy.

But there are ways to start reviving the economy. The big one is to contain the spread of COVID-19 ― which will allow schools and businesses to reopen in greater safety and people who are immuno-compromised or living with those with chronic conditions to leave their homes with less fear.

Then, to help caregivers get back into the job market, the U.S. needs to ensure they will have paid leave to take care of family members when necessary. Two out of three unemployed workers said they would be somewhat or very likely to return to work sooner if they knew they had access to paid leave, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center survey.

Ninety-four percent of those receiving unemployment benefits today did not have paid family leave through their jobs. And the provisions enacted by Congress this spring to expand leave left out most of the workforce.

Cutting unemployment benefits, however, won’t solve anybody’s problems.

For now, Scarpelli said, “I don’t see myself having the ability to go back to work. People say money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy safety and we’re going to lose that.”

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