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Restoring Unemployment Insurance & Bipartisanship | Commentary

Millions of Americans are struggling to find work, and this week, the United States Senate finally voted 59-38 to pass a bipartisan bill to provide them some targeted, temporary relief.

We come from different states and different parties, but we agree that temporarily restoring emergency unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed is the right thing to do and this is the critical moment to get it done.

The bipartisan bill we crafted is a fiscally responsible compromise that will assist our neighbors in need, improve both our short-term and long-term national economic health, and make important reforms to the program.

It has now been over 100 days since the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was allowed to expire, leaving millions of job-seeking Americans in the lurch.

Although the latest jobs report shows the U.S. economy added 192,000 jobs in March, the national unemployment rate remains unchanged at 6.7 percent, and this remains a particularly difficult economy for the long-term unemployed. Indeed, the number of long-term unemployed Americans today is nearly twice as high as it has ever been when Congress cut off emergency unemployment insurance.

The Reed-Heller bill provides five months of targeted relief, and is retroactive to ensure that job seekers who’ve been unfairly cut off are made whole. This bill is the product of months of negotiations, and is truly a compromise solution that includes input from many members of Congress.

We both agree that the ultimate solution is a growing economy and more jobs. Congress should take more bipartisan actions to get our country back to full employment — to a place where all Americans have an opportunity to earn a living and build a better life for their families.

But in the meantime, we must not turn our backs on those who are desperately looking for a job but just have not yet secured one.

Unemployment insurance provides effective relief to those hit hardest by the recession, and plays an important role in sustaining our local communities.

This federal assistance helps everyone — not just the jobless — because it prevents people from being evicted or foreclosed on, which can hurt property values and neighborhoods. It helps people keep their phones on so when an employer calls them back for an interview they can answer the call, and allows individuals to access goods and services from mom and pop businesses like grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies.

The bill also builds on significant changes to the unemployment insurance laws that were passed in 2012. The Reed-Heller agreement also includes language to strengthen reemployment and eligibility assessment and ReEmployment Services programs. In an effort to help get job seekers back into the workforce, individuals receiving emergency unemployment compensation will be eligible for enhanced, personalized assessments and referrals to re-employment services when they begin their 27th week of UI (Tier I) and 55th week of UI (Tier III). It also ends emergency unemployment insurance payments to any individual whose adjusted gross income in the preceding year was $1 million or more.

Our bill is fully paid for. But the cost of inaction is severe, as more unemployed people will be forced to turn to shelters, food pantries, or other social services they never dreamed they’d need.

Compromise isn’t always easy. Some of our colleagues have raised questions about how state workforce agencies might administer retroactive benefits and enforce new requirements provided in this bill. These are reasonable concerns, but we firmly believe that these challenges can be overcome. Indeed, in a recent letter addressing these very concerns, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, a former state labor secretary for Maryland with hands-on experience with unemployment insurance, indicated that these challenges are not insurmountable and his agency stands ready to assist.

We’ve got our work cut out for us, but restoring unemployment insurance is a smart step that will also provide more stability and predictability for businesses as well.

We both served in the U.S. House of Representatives and understand the House has its own priorities. But we hope the House leadership will quickly take up this bill and we stand ready to work with them in a bipartisan fashion to get this done.

Jack Reed is a Democratic U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. Dean Heller is a Republican U.S. Senator from Nevada.

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