Unemployment Insurance payments are the life-blood of many Americans at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 1932, when Wisconsin was the first state to provide relief to workers who were out of work as a result of the 1929 financial collapse, workers have been able to receive temporary weekly cash payments.  The cash payments are meant for unemployed persons to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families.  The basic idea is that the money would be immediately spent, thus providing a direct stimulus to their local economies.

During the eight years that Scott Walker was governor, Republicans in the legislature passed a variety of bills making changes to the state’s unemployment system that have created barriers for people to qualify for Unemployment Insurance benefits. The result is fewer people were able to receive benefits and there were delays in payments.

The Department of Workforce Development released figures showing that of the 2.12 million claims filed between March 15 and May 16, 675,000 had not been processed.  Back in 2014 an audit of the DWD revealed that the process needed to be modernized.  Wisconsinites are now forced to pay the price of their inaction.

The best known of those changes delayed payments on valid Unemployment Insurance claims for one-week before claimants can receive payment.  Other changes lengthened the application process itself by making more cases reviewable and by lengthening the review process.

Because Republicans ignored numerous requests by the Governor and Democrats to lift the one-week waiting period for unemployment compensation, Wisconsin lost an additional $25 million in federal funding during the weeks of March 29 through April 12.  Last month Evers and lawmakers suspended that waiting period, but it will be resumed beginning in February, 2021.

The CARES Act (a.k.a. Federal Stimulus Bill) is massively expanding the unemployment insurance network, to grant eligibility to more workers and get an extra $600 a week in the pockets of those workers.  This too must be expanded in time as it will disappear on July 31st, leaving many people surviving with an income near or below the poverty line.   The House of Representatives has passed the Hero’s Act, extending the extra payment through January of 2021, but the Senate’s Republican Majority Leader has not considered this bill essential enough to bring it to the floor.

There are a record-breaking number of Americans filing for unemployment.  The current volume of unemployment claims has been topping 300,000 a week, the DWD reported — nearly 200% higher than the average number of weekly claims in the first year of the 2008 Great Recession. The latest reported Wisconsin unemployment rate is 14.1%.  This is higher than the national average of 13.3%.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the passage of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package that backers say will help stabilize and ultimately save the American economy from the ravages of COVID-19. It’s become clear that for regular workers and small business owners, there’s not enough for the long haul.

With large companies and corporations receiving the bulk of the bailout, experts are warning that the $1,200 stimulus checks may be a one-time government effort. This is an especially big problem given that the GOP Senate is already throwing water on the idea of backing more stimulus injections.  So while US citizens get a one-time stipend, thus far; other countries give more.  Has the pandemic sunk in and we’re either actually broke or just behaving like it?

What are we even getting, exactly? Those with a mortgage to pay have some upside, as the CARES Act provides tools to delay payments and prevent a potential eviction. But that, too, comes without any payment forgiveness or cash aid, and it only covers about half of America’s mortgages, because you need a federally-backed loan in order to qualify. Meanwhile, rent relief is nonexistent on the federal level.

It’s especially obvious when you compare the U.S. to other countries that are choosing to shoulder more of the economic burden the pandemic is putting on average people.  In other parts of the world bailout cash is going to those who actually need it most — and who can actually help their flagging economies.

So, note the present Stimulus Packages around the world:

  • UK: 80% of workers’ salaries
  • Denmark: 75% of workers’ salaries
  • S Korea: 70% of workers’ salaries
  • Netherlands: 90% of workers’ salaries
  • Canada: $2k per month
  • Australia: $1k per month

But what if this was an unprecedented moment for America would show its might to the American people?  Instead, what we have is a half-measure – which might be the most disturbing “present government / socialized corporate thing” provided by those who presently lead it.

We have work to do—it’s time for Republicans to work with Gov. Evers and Democrats on legislation that meaningfully addresses long-term relief to workers, students, families, seniors and local businesses impacted by the ongoing health and economic challenges.

Some of us don’t think twice about these programs until we need them. This current crisis has forced many to file for Unemployment Insurance for the first time in their lives. While we each strive to support ourselves and our families, we are grateful to have these government programs during emergencies.

Getting these benefits can be the difference between being able to afford groceries, pay mortgages or rent, and survive during this pandemic.

Shawano County Dems Op-Ed which appeared in the Shawano Leader by: Jan Koch and Ed Johnson.

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