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Unions Press Senators to Extend $600 Unemployment Payments as Clock Ticks Down

WASHINGTON—With at least one out of every nine American workers still jobless, the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits enacted in March is scheduled to expire before the end of the month. Labor unions are mounting a campaign to overcome Senate Republicans’ resistance to extending them.

“We just need to bang on lawmakers to get them to act. They aren’t feeling the pressure.” — Kelly Ross, AFL-CIO deputy director of policy

The House passed a bill in mid-May, the HEROES Act, whose $3 trillion in federal aid includes extending the $600 in federal enhanced benefits until January. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has so far refused to consider it.

“We just need to bang on lawmakers to get them to act. They aren’t feeling the pressure,” Kelly Ross, the AFL-CIO’s deputy director of policy, told LaborPress. The additional benefits, added by the CARES Act enacted in March, “kept people afloat and really lessened the impact of layoffs. But that’s not going to continue unless the HEROES Act is passed.”

The COVID-19 epidemic has to be contained before the economy can be revived, he says. With new infections exploding in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, he adds, “the economy is in a dangerous place, and right now is not the time to cut the stimulus.”

In New York State, the extra $600 would expire after the week ending Sunday, July 26—cutting off 2.8 million people. According to federal Department of Labor figures released July 9, more than one-sixth of the state’s workers are either collecting unemployment compensation or in the process of applying for it: 1.7 million claiming regular benefits, and another 1.1 million claiming Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, intended for freelance and gig-economy workers not covered by the regular program.

The AFL-CIO’s efforts, says communications director Tim Schlitter, include urging members in every state to call their senators, with a “tell Mitch McConnell…  pass the Heroes Act” ad campaign launched July 14 on TV and social media in Kentucky. The 50 state federations are seeking Zoom meetings with their senators.

While Senate Republicans have generally been “very resistant,” says Schlitter, the federation plans to target about 20 who might be movable.

“The House passed a great bill and they’re not even negotiating on it,” says Communications Workers of America legislative specialist Elena Lopez. “They want to wait until the last minute, to put Democrats in a corner.”

The CWA has been meeting with congressional staff, organizing online petitions, and having members call their senators, particularly “ensuring Republican senators feel the pressure,” she says.

Whatever is done will likely be worked out by the four Senate and House leaders from the two parties, rather than going through the usual committee-hearing process, says Ross. 

Labor, he adds, also needs to pressure Democrats “to do right by unemployed workers,” so their leadership makes it a priority “that this has to be part of the deal.”

Senate Republicans have generally opposed extending the extra $600 by claiming that it discourages people from going back to work because many are getting more money than they were making on their old jobs. But “Democrats have a bit of leverage here,” Ross says: With unemployment still over 11% and predictions that it will remain high until next year even without a second wave of the epidemic, Congressmembers don’t want to run for re-election in a sinking economy.

Republicans have shown some indications of willingness to bend at least slightly. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC July 9 that the White House was open to a modified version of the enhanced benefits, but “you can assume that it will be no more than 100%” of a worker’s usual pay. GOP legislators have discussed reducing the enhanced benefit to $200 to $400 a week while giving taxpayers another $1,200 stimulus payment, the Washington Post reported July 14.

Another possible compromise is the American Workforce Rescue Act, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on July 1. It would continue the extra $600 as long as a state’s unemployment rate averages more than 11% over a three-month period. The amount would be reduced by $100 for every percentage point the rate decreases, and the extra benefits would end if the state’s rate falls below 6%.

Meanwhile, as of July 15, the liberal organization MoveOn had collected 1.5 million signatures on a petition urging Congress to extend the extra $600 until Dec. 31. “It doesn’t make sense for it to end three months down the road,” says R.J. Wolfe, a Florida-based political fundraiser and novelist who conceived the petition. “The impact on the economy is going to be more negative.”

Wolfe says he hopes to deliver the petition in person on July 22. 

Department of Labor figures indicate that as of July 11, as many as 36 million American workers were either collecting unemployment, waiting to receive benefits they’d been approved for, or had recently applied for them, Economic Policy Institute senior economist Heidi Shierholz wrote July 16. 

That number might be inflated by duplication in state reports, she noted. Still, “there are 14 million more unemployed workers than job openings, meaning millions will remain jobless no matter what they do,” Shierholz added. “Cutting off the $600 cannot incentivize people to get jobs that aren’t there. Even further, many are simply unable to take a job right now no matter how much benefits are cut, because it’s not safe for them or because they have care responsibilities as a result of the coronavirus.”

“We really need Senate Republicans to start negotiating in good faith,” says Lopez. But the union’s efforts to contact them have often not gotten any response, she adds.

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