Roughly half of states have pulled the plug on the $300 a week federal unemployment benefit passed in March as part of the coronavirus relief package. The goal is to force people back into the workforce, as Republican lawmakers argue that generous unemployment checks have encouraged people to stay home as jobs have rebounded. But Wisconsin Watch reporter Bram Sable-Smith sees things differently. People tell him they want to work, but they’re facing a range of obstacles that are getting ignored. “At some point, it seems like we just decided that everyone’s going to go back to work,” Sable-Smith says. “But no one was asking the workers, what’s going on? How’s your work search going? Are you feeling comfortable going back to work? Are you having success finding jobs that work for you?” On Monday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Sable-Smith about what’s really behind continuing unemployment, and what the government can do about it. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Let’s go back to the beginning. In March of 2020, unemployment spiked, and the federal government responded by flooding state governments with assistance. But the local systems just weren’t able to deal with it, so the unemployed had to fight for their benefits. In Wisconsin, for instance, there was this rule that people getting disability could not also get unemployment assistance, even though the feds said these workers qualified for checks. It took months to figure that problem out. On top of that, the computer systems in the state were simply too old to keep up with demand.
Bram Sable-Smith: It absolutely was not ready for the volume of people that were there. Something about the unemployment system in many states, and Wisconsin is one of them, is that the technology it uses is completely outdated. We’re talking about a system that has to be programed sequentially and that can only do one thing at a time. So, you know, one of the calls in Wisconsin was that we needed the call centers to be open 24 hours a day, so that people could be able to call with their questions about the unemployment system, about their claims, to see, hey, what’s going on, can we move things along a little bit better? But what that call doesn’t recognize is that because of the data technology that the system uses, they actually have to shut down the call centers because they can’t have the people on the phone accessing the system at the same time that the system is doing something like writing the checks that go out to the people who are getting unemployment benefits. It can’t do two things at the same time.
So it needs the overnight to, like, rest and make checks.
Exactly. It needs to stop the part where you can adjudicate someone’s claim so it can start the part where it’s adjudicating checks.
Did most of the people you spoke with eventually get the benefits that they needed or that they were owed?
Yes, for the most part.
Did it feel like a victory when that happened?
It’s one of the things that feels frustrating. I wrote in March about a man who had waited a year to get unemployment benefits, so he had basically fallen into every hurdle that anyone in the unemployment system had faced. First he was denied because he receives disability help. Then he was denied because he lost an appeal. Then he got held up in this appeals process that takes many months. Then he won his case. But it took another several months. So he ended up waiting basically a year for his unemployment benefits. When I spoke to him, he had won all that stuff, but he was still waiting for his benefits.
How are people like him getting by in the meantime? They still have mortgages to pay and car payments and all that stuff.
There’s a lot of commonalities in the problem they had, and the uniqueness really happens in how they dealt with it and what happened to people. People were facing impossible situations. People were leaving their houses. People were losing their houses. I spoke to one woman, Karen Miller, who was working in Wisconsin. She lived in Illinois. She waited 11 weeks for her unemployment to come. She owns a home with her son. He waited 13 weeks for unemployment help to come. In that time, they spent down their entire savings so that they could stay current on their mortgage and stay in their home.
Did they think of applying for mortgage relief? I know that was another program that was available to some homeowners.
They did. So they got a forbearance. This is another CARES Act thing. Homeowners were able to get up to 18 months where they could kind of defer their payments on their mortgage. They qualified for that. But they decided, even though they qualified for it, they want to stay current on their mortgage. So they ended up paying that anyway.
One of the biggest problems [Karen] has is that she’d love to get back to work. She had a great job digitizing government documents. She lost that work. And she would love to get another similar job. She has a heart condition that prevents her from doing too much physical work, so a desk job would be great for her. But when she’s doing her work searches, the jobs that are coming back to her are for things like warehouse work or delivery driving, things that she can’t really physically do. Or she’s also receiving job postings for registered nurse jobs, which is a credential she doesn’t have. So in her case, the thing that’s really holding her back is finding a job that she’s able to do. And that seems to be the case for a lot of people.
At the same time, Wisconsin politicians are looking to put pressure on people to force them back into work. There’s a Democratic governor, but there’s a Republican-controlled Legislature. So how did that fight play out?
The Wisconsin Legislature actually passed a bill ending the federal supplemental payments, but that was vetoed by the governor, and then just recently they tried to override the veto but were unable to do so. So we still in Wisconsin have this $300 extra federal supplemental unemployment benefit. But that expires in September.
You’ve said that many of the people you spoke with who are relying on unemployment benefits don’t want to be reliant on these benefits. Like Karen Miller, who kept paying her mortgage even after qualifying for relief. There’s an element of dignity at play. If many of these people could find appropriate work that paid them a living wage, they’d take it.
It’s something I heard a lot, that I never thought it would be me, I never thought I would be on unemployment, I never thought I would be in this position. There’s a lot of people who are really proud, you know, really proud and don’t want to be accepting public benefit like this. And there was something about the pandemic earlier when there was a common understanding that there was something really drastic, really radical happening, and it made it OK. It was OK to be on unemployment, because you never thought you’d be here. And it took this enormous event that we didn’t see coming, that dramatically changed the entire society, to make it OK—for a little bit. And then that’s kind of changed again.
Even someone like Karen Miller—she sees how people who are on unemployment are being referred to in the media, being made out as lazy people. The speaker of the Assembly in Wisconsin called the extra $300 unemployment benefits a “disincentive to work” that prompts “mischief” among the unemployed. She hears that language. And even she was telling me that, like, I’m sure there’s probably someone out there who’s doing this, but the majority of us, we’re not lazy people. We’re people who were working, and then we lost our jobs.
One man you talked to, Pierre Young, got through the pandemic while he was waiting for benefits by selling his vehicles. And now that he’s looking for work again, he doesn’t have a car to get there. There are real limitations to what he can do.
Yeah, I mean, Pierre is really struggling. This is another person who receives Social Security disability insurance. In Wisconsin, in order to get unemployment benefits, if you’re on Social Security disability insurance, first you have to get denied for regular unemployment benefits and then—only then—you can apply for the pandemic unemployment benefits. And he is being denied those benefits now because they’re saying his paperwork wasn’t submitted in a timely manner. He didn’t submit his pay stubs in a timely manner, which he says he didn’t realize he had to do that. He’s appealing that decision, and the appeals process can take many months, so he’s just sitting here struggling. And, yeah, he had two trucks, he sold both of them together for $800, which helped him pay his rent. But now he still hasn’t received unemployment benefits and he’s looking for work, but he doesn’t have a car to get there. He’s a handyman. He found, I think, on Indeed.com, a 12-week construction job that he would love to do. He said, oh, this is perfect for me, but it’s in Iowa, and he’s in Milwaukee. You know, that’s a long drive. He can’t get to that construction site. So the decisions he’s had to make to stay afloat, to keep a roof over his head while he’s waiting for the benefits to come, are impacting his ability to find the work that can get him out of this situation.
I wonder if, talking to people who are actually unemployed, you came out of that with an idea of what politicians should do if they actually want to get people back to work, if there was something that became clear to you through your reporting.
It could be as simple as money.
What do you mean by that?
Well, if you look at the average unemployment benefit in Wisconsin and then you tack on the $300 supplement and you divide by 40, so the hourly wage equivalent, it comes out to a little under $15 an hour. There’s a lot of people in the country who are pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage. There’s a lot of jobs that offer $15 an hour. If you do take at face value that one of the impediments of hiring people, getting people back to work, is competing with the assistance people are getting from the unemployment system, if you take at face value that that’s a problem, and the way to beat it is with a wage that’s higher, you know, $15 is right there. Fifteen dollars is a higher wage than the average person is making in equivalency with the unemployment benefits. To a certain extent, money is an issue.
There’s also a mismatch of people who are wanting to find a certain amount of dignity in their work. I mean, I interviewed a 44-year-old bartender who’s worked in the service industry for over 20 years and he’s leaving. He can’t take it anymore. Bartenders were people who were being asked to enforce things like mask-wearing during the pandemic. And that’s something that a lot of people didn’t want to do. He got heckled a lot and he was saying, like, I don’t have to take this anymore. I don’t get paid enough to deal with having to be the mask enforcer. And so he’s leaving the industry.
Have you been able to talk to any of the people you’ve been following about what their plans are for the fall? Because in September, these extended unemployment benefits, they’re scheduled to go away.
I think the plan is what it’s always been, and it’s to get back to work. When I’m talking to these people, the unemployment benefits have been helpful. There’s no question about it. But it hasn’t changed the fact that they’ve been searching for work. People who are looking for work are going to continue looking for work and hoping that they find that. That’s plan No. 1, because one way or another, unemployment is going to end. The federal supplements are going to go away. It’s never meant to be a permanent thing. Unemployment’s always been there to be in place to get people through the hard times as a bridge until they can find stable work again. That hasn’t changed. It’s maybe just a question of whether you think people still need a bridge right now.
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