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Senate Democrats press Labor secretary on benefits as joblessness rises

Rapid caseload increases highlight race to implement new programs at state level

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia testifies during his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Sept. 19, 2019.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia testifies during his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Sept. 19, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The unemployment data that the Labor Department released Thursday showing rapid caseload increases highlights the race underway at the state level to implement the new programs approved in the $2.3 trillion economic rescue law.

The new unemployment claims for the week ending April 4, at 6.6 million, were slightly less than the revised 6.87 million initial claims in the previous week, but the data shows that caseloads are soaring even before most states have been able to implement the new programs enacted in the law.

Senate Democrats pushed the Labor Department this week to expedite guidance and other assistance, putting forward a series of recommendations in an April 7 letter. 

[Unemployment claims surge as states await federal guidance]

“The Department and state workforce agencies have a monumental task ahead in processing these claims. But Americans who have lost their jobs don’t have time to wait for a check. People need unemployment compensation now so they can buy groceries, pay rent, and keep up their bills. Without it, many Americans won’t be able to make ends meet,” the Democrats wrote.

A department spokesperson said Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia talked Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“The secretary spoke on a call with Sens. Schumer, Wyden and Sanders,” the spokesperson said. “The conversations have continued. The secretary and Sen. Wyden had another call today where the secretary provided even more updates on the department’s actions to help state UI [unemployment insurance] systems.”

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The letter signed by 35 Democratic and two independent senators laid out recommendations for the Labor Department to help states push out the new benefits: technological support, expedited transfers of federal funds to cover new administrative costs, expanding the interstate network connection system that state agencies use to obtain verification from the federal system, rapid guidance on the remaining new programs and operational flexibility on reporting requirements.

The spokesperson said the department already had been moving on many of the proposals in the letter.

“The department has been in constant contact with state UI offices,’’ the spokesperson said. “The department … has been engaging and working with states to offer computing support. The department has already distributed nearly $500 million in administrative funding to 39 states and encourages remaining states to seek assistance if they need help certifying their compliance.”

State workforce agencies face a series of challenges in implementing new unemployment benefits. They rely on guidance from the Labor Department on how to interpret relevant federal laws and regulations.

The department has issued two sets of guidance for the new categories of benefits. The first is to regulate the $600 extra weekly benefit available to all who receive unemployment and related benefits, known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

The second guidance document, released on April 5, sets out the rules for pandemic unemployment assistance, the basic benefit of 39 weeks that covers much broader categories of workers and others, in a substantial departure from regular unemployment insurance programs.

Christopher O’Leary, an economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment in Michigan, agreed that most of the recommendations would assist states, although he questioned whether the reporting requirements should be relaxed as proposed in the Senate letter. 

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