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Democrats, eyeing GOP, extend but don’t top up jobless benefit

House vote expected Friday

More than 36 million people have filed for jobless benefits in the eight weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic brought widespread business closures.
More than 36 million people have filed for jobless benefits in the eight weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic brought widespread business closures. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The unemployment provisions of House Democrats’ new COVID-19 relief package would extend into 2021 benefits that Congress provided by legislation only a few weeks ago, but the bill otherwise would make few changes to the benefits already enacted. 

Other components of the latest Democratic proposal are more expansive in their policy goals, but Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill, said changes to the unemployment provisions were minimized in order to maximize the prospect of getting Republican support.

“We know you can’t go it alone,” said Davis, who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support. “It takes three to tango. We’ve got to have all the components working together to reach agreement.”  

The House is expected to vote on the $3 trillion bill Friday even though some Democratic lawmakers are unhappy with omissions. That vote would come just a day after the Labor Department said another 3 million people filed jobless claims in the week ending May 9, raising to more than 36 million the number who have filed in the eight weeks since the pandemic started shutting down large parts of the economy.

Davis acknowledged that some labor advocates see the COVID-19 benefits as inadequate, but he said Democrats are focused on an approach most likely to make it through Congress, a recognition that Senate Republicans consider added benefits too generous. 

“I think we made that decision because we know that to get this economy back up and running, and provide opportunity for individuals to return to work, that we needed to keep the benefits flowing to the unemployed,” Davis said.

The Democrats’ bill would extend a $600 a week unemployment benefit through Jan. 31, 2021, and to March 31, 2021, for those enrolled at the end of January. That benefit, known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, is currently set to expire July 31. It is the most common channel to get federal money to the unemployed in the current pandemic. All states are now paying the added benefit to anyone getting state or federal benefits. 

Congress also used the third relief law to establish another key benefit, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to cover a range of workers who didn’t qualify for regular unemployment in most states: the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, workers with medical conditions whose doctors have advised them to self-quarantine and others. The program covered some 3.4 million workers as of the week ending April 25, according to data released by the Labor Department on Thursday. 

The PUA ends Dec. 31 under current law, but Democrats would extend applications to Jan. 31, 2021, in the proposed bill, and workers who apply by Jan. 31 would be eligible to receive it through the end of March. Thirty-nine states are now making PUA payments.

As of May 7, 23 states had started making extended pandemic payments to those who had already exhausted eligibility for regular state unemployment. That eligibility lasts 26 weeks in most states, but Congress had previously added another 13 weeks at federal expense. 

The House Democrats’ relief bill also would make an additional $925 million available to states for administrative expenses involved in beefing up unemployment agencies to handle the huge influx of new claims. The Labor Department already has awarded more than $500 million appropriated by earlier COVID-19 relief bills.

Some states have struggled to keep pace with the applications. CQ Roll Call’s analysis of Labor Department data indicates that as of April 25 Florida hadn’t advanced 74 percent of initial claims. 

The Democrats’ proposed legislation also would extend the 100 percent federal payment of extended unemployment through June. Such benefits, typically triggered state by state at higher unemployment levels, usually are subject to a 50-50 federal-state match.

Additional federal assistance for unemployment payments made to employees of nonprofit groups and government entities would be extended through Jan. 31, 2021, as would federal assistance for short-time compensation programs, often called shared work programs.

Michigan utilized this program on Wednesday when it announced that most state employees would take off two days per pay period, with their unemployment costs covered by the work share program, saving Michigan a total $80 million.

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