Take This Job, Please!
S1: Last year, reporter Bram Sable-Smith started hanging out in these private Facebook groups.
S2: These groups started forming because I’m in Wisconsin and Wisconsin, just like every state in the country saw a record number of unemployment claims. Record numbers of people were losing their jobs, people who, you know, you would often hear people saying, like, I never thought that I would lose my job, but suddenly here we are.
S1: At first, there were only a few hundred people in these digital support groups, then a few thousand, and once they got over the shock of being laid off, the people here started sorting through their anger. They were often dealing with unemployment systems that were overloaded. They would trade tips and tricks for how to get help.
S2: People could vent. They could you know, they could share tips about ways to reach the department that administers unemployment to maybe help their case move along a little quicker.
S1: One of the top tricks Bram saw folks recommending was call a politician, get an elected official to adopt your cause, advocate for you.
S2: I talked to one representative here in Madison who won election last year, and she inherited from her predecessor a list of people whose claims were still in progress that she could then start to follow up on so that they wouldn’t drop the ball.
S1: No one thought this was a good system, but it was a system. And then very suddenly, a year into the pandemic, something changed.
S2: Everybody was a champion for these people who had lost their jobs. And then that switch the new jobs report. CNN chief business correspondent Christine Romans here with me at the desk. Want to bring in the numbers right now.
S1: And the answer is a giant mystery, right? It started with a disappointing jobs report. And we’ve heard from employers that a big problem is they can’t find the workers to hire especially. And this jobs report became fodder for a theory.
S2: Restaurants are closing because they can’t find anyone to hire or manufacturing plants,
S1: a theory that government benefits were causing workers to sit on their hands.
S2: Why is this happening? Well, there’s too much cash in the system.
S3: Anytime you give somebody free money over long periods of times, it stops them from growing. It stops them from working hard. It’s against everything that this country is built on. It’s about hard work.
S2: Sometime around April or May of this year, the rhetoric changed.
S1: That is when Bram sources, the workers themselves started going silent.
S2: For me as a reporter, it suddenly became harder for me to get people to go on the record sharing their stories.
S1: Why? Why do you think that is? Were they ashamed in some way?
S2: Absolutely. I mean, people said that explicitly to me. At some point it seems like we just decided that everyone’s going to go back to work. 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
S1: today on the show, what workers say about why so many of them are not yet back on the job? I’m Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. To understand why so many people are still unemployed now, a year and a half into the pandemic, Bram Sable-Smith says it helps to zoom out, remember each step along the way. So let’s go back. It’s March of twenty. Twenty unemployment just spiked and the federal government is beginning to respond by flooding state governments with assistance. But if you look at a state like Wisconsin where Bram lives, you can see how simply opening a spigot of cash caused problems to the local systems just weren’t able to deal with it. And as a result, the unemployed had to fight for their benefits.
S2: We spent, you know, the previous 10 years really seen a tax on the social safety net. So when it when it came time for it to be in use, despite all the record amounts of extra funding that have gone into it. It really was leaving a lot of people behind during all of this
S1: in Wisconsin, for instance, there was this rule people getting disability could not also get unemployment assistance, even though the Fed said these workers qualified for checks, it took months to figure that one out. On top of that, the computer systems in the state, they were simply too old to keep up with the demand.
S2: It absolutely was not ready for the volume of people that were there. Something about the unemployment system in many states in Wisconsin is one of them is it the technology it uses is completely outdated. We’re talking about a system that has to be programmed sequentially and that can only do one thing at a time. So one of the calls in Wisconsin was that we needed the call centers to be open 24 hours a day. That’s what some critics were saying, 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? 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 on unemployment benefits. It can’t do two things at the same time.
S1: So it needs the overnight to like rest and make checks.
S2: Exactly. It needs to stop the part where you can, you know, adjudicate someone’s claim so they can start the part where it’s adjudicating checks.
S1: Did most of the people you spoke with eventually get the benefits that they needed or that they were owed?
S2: Yes. Yes, for the most part,
S1: did it feel like a victory when that happened?
S2: 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 that faced he fell into basically every single one of them, so 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 to get into the city. 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. Still, it took many, many weeks for his decision, for the judgment that said this guy qualifies. It took many weeks for that to get entered into the computer system. So even after he won his case, he was still waiting several weeks to actually get the funds that go into his account. And we ran a story and he got paid the next day.
S1: Huh? You don’t think that’s a coincidence? It sounds like,
S2: you know, I asked the Department of Workforce Development if they, you know, if the story had anything to do with it. And they said, oh, you know, we have many case. You know, they basically didn’t admit it. But the timing seems like the story had an impact on when he got paid. And, you know, from a personal perspective, it’s like, great, there’s the power of journalism. We can help people who are struggling in the social safety net to to access what they’re owed, what they’re do. But on the other hand, it’s really frustrating that this is what people have to do to get the benefits that are promised to them and the system to keep them afloat during the worst economic catastrophe of our lifetime.
S1: So people came together because they. Couldn’t figure out how to get the benefits, even though the federal government was clearly saying, like, OK, we’re going to pump money into this system for you. So how are they getting by? Like, how are they living their day to day lives? They still had mortgages to pay and car payments and all that stuff.
S2: You know, when you’re talking about what was common and what was unique among the unemployed during the pandemic, there’s a lot of commonalities in the problem they had and the uniqueness really happens and 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. You know, this is someone who was working in Wisconsin. She lived in Illinois. She waited. It ended up being 11 weeks for her unemployment to come. She owns a home with her son. He waited 13 weeks for unemployment help to come. So that’s three months that they’re waiting. In that time, they spent down their entire savings so that they could stay current on their mortgage and stay in their home.
S1: Did they ever think of applying for, like, mortgage relief? I know that was another program that was available to some homeowners.
S2: They did. So they got a forbearance with. This is another Kahrizak 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 wanted to stay current on their mortgage. So they ended up paying that anyway.
S1: So Karen Miller spent down her savings to keep up with expenses. And that means now she really does need a job. But there’s a problem. The jobs that are available are not necessarily jobs she can take.
S2: One of the biggest problems she has is that, you know, she will have to get back to work. She had a great job digitizing government documents, which, you know, doesn’t sound like the sexiest job to a lot of people, but she really enjoyed it. She lost that work and she would love to get another similar job. You know, 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 like 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.
S1: Yeah, hearing Karen stories in the stories of other people you spoke to, there seemed to be like a real mismatch in the kind of jobs that are out there and the people who are seeking work, people like Karen who can’t just go be a waitress like that’s just not in the cards for her. And then at the same time. Wisconsin politicians are looking to put pressure on people like the folks you spoke to to kind of force them back into work, a lot of states are doing this. They’re saying we’re not going to extend benefits from the federal government to you anymore, like we’re going to cut those off because we really think that people need to be getting back to work. And so, you know, having these benefits is too much of a cushion. It’s keeping people out of the workforce. Can you tell the story of that fight in Wisconsin in particular? Because Wisconsin is a particular place. There’s there’s a Democratic governor, but there’s a Republican controlled legislature. So how did that fight play out?
S2: So, you know, about half of states have ended this federal supplement for unemployment, it’s changed throughout the pandemic, how much it’s been right now, it’s an extra three hundred dollars a week. About half of states have ended that. And in Wisconsin, the Republicans who control the legislature very much have wanted to do that as well.
S1: And were local politicians able to get a bill on the floor and get it through to the governor?
S2: Yeah. In Wisconsin, 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 dollar extra federal supplemental unemployment benefit that’s being paid to people. Three hundred dollars a week. It’s still in place, but that expires in September.
S1: The thing Bram noticed as he spoke with people relying on these unemployment benefits is that many of them, they don’t want to be reliant on these benefits, like Karen Miller, who kept paying her mortgage even after she qualified for relief. There’s this element of dignity at play. If many of the people he spoke to could find appropriate work that paid them a living wage, then take it.
S2: 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. That’s something I absolutely heard a lot as I was talking to people who are going through the system. 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 is 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, you know. Dramatically changed the entire society to make it OK for a little bit. And then that’s kind of changed again, even the people who are saying, you know, Karen Miller is an example, even someone like Karen Miller who says she she sees how she’s been, how people who are on unemployment are being referred to in the media, you know, being made out as lazy people in Wisconsin. The speaker of the assembly in Wisconsin called the extra added three hundred dollar unemployment benefits that are coming from the federal government. He referred to that as 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. Where people who were working and then we lost our jobs
S1: after the break, how waiting on those initial benefit payments is raising the stakes for people who remain out of work now. Part of what I think is interesting about your reporting is that by showing the real impact of the first half of the pandemic and the fight over benefits, it explains a little bit this moment that we’re in now where it seems like people aren’t taking jobs that are available. And when I say that, I’m thinking specifically of one man’s story. You told this guy, Peter Young, because he got through the pandemic. But the way he got through the pandemic while he was waiting for benefits was by selling his vehicles. And so now that he’s looking for work again, he doesn’t have a car to get there. And so. The fact that the benefits were delayed. Are having a concrete impact on him now when he’s ready to work, he wants to work. But there are real limitations to what he can do.
S2: Yeah, I mean, Piers really struggling so pure. 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 you apply only then you can apply for the pandemic and 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. But anyway, he’s appealing that decision and the appeals process can take many months. So he’s just sitting here struggling. And, yeah, like you said, he had two trucks, a 1998 Chevy Tahoe and a 2002 Dodge Ram pickup that he described as a beater with the heater. He sold both of them together for eight hundred dollars, which helped him pay his rent. But now, you know, 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, dotcom. He found 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.
S1: It strikes me we’re at this really interesting moment where. For the last year and a half, we poured so much money at the federal level into these local systems, and by doing that, we kind of figured out. Where the problems were like you talked about how in Wisconsin, the system just wasn’t able to handle people 24/7, how there was this disability unemployment mismatch that caused people to not be able to access benefits for a certain period of time. And that’s kind of valuable, actually, to learn those things about the system. But I wonder if after learning those things, the state. Is repairing the problems that have become evident through this process. Or instead is just saying, like, let’s pull the benefits back and problems remain, but we’re just not going to stress out the system in the same way.
S2: I think to a certain extent, it remains to be seen. I think there’s no question that the pandemic has exposed. I mean, this pandemic has exposed so many cracks in our social safety net and unemployment is unquestionably one of them. And there’s a lot of people who think that this is a moment that, you know, now that we can see this with clarity, what’s wrong with the system? Now’s the moment to fix it. But that’s a fight that. Could take time to play out. I mean, that’s the question that remains to be seen if it’s going to get an answer right now. Hmm.
S1: 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, to your reporting.
S2: To a certain extent, it could be as simple as money.
S1: What do you mean by that?
S2: Well, if you look at the average unemployment benefit in Wisconsin and then you tack on the three hundred dollars supplement and you divide by 40. Right. So what’s the hourly wage equivalent that someone who’s receiving unemployment with the federal supplement, what’s the equivalent of an hourly wage? It comes out to a little under fifteen dollars an hour. There’s a lot of people in the country who are pushing for a fifteen dollars an hour minimum wage. There’s a lot of jobs that offer fifteen dollars 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, fifteen dollars is right there. Fifteen dollars is a higher wage than the average person is making an 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 forty four 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 to 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 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.
S1: So 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.
S2: I think the plan is what it’s always been. And 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 that’s plan number one, 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.
S1: Bram Sable-Smith, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: Thanks for having me.
S1: Mary Bram Sable-Smith reports on the social safety net in Wisconsin, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Danielle Hewitt and Delana Schwartz. We get help each and every day from Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.