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May 19, 2021, 12:39 p.m. EDT

How to fix the unemployment system to time extra benefits so they are just the right size to help workers and the economy

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By Patricia M. Anderson, and Phillip Levine

The Issue:

The expansion of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in 2020 and 2021 through the COVID-19 pandemic has come in fits and starts, with benefits increasing at times to levels well in excess of what workers were earning at their jobs and at other times dropping drastically without regard to changing labor market conditions. We need a better approach.

With unemployment insurance, timing is everything

The Facts:

The goal of unemployment insurance is to provide assistance to workers when they need it.  Unemployment insurance (UI) provides a lifeline to workers when they lose their jobs. It is a state-run system with federal oversight. During recessions the federal government has frequently stepped in to enhance what states provide to better enable workers who lost jobs manage their income loss.

Ideally, expansion of UI should be well-timed to the economic contraction, starting quickly when a recession hits to help those workers and to prevent further deterioration of the economy. At the same time, any enhanced level of aid should wind down as the economy recovers to maintain work incentives that will allow that economy to grow as rapidly as possible. 

The size of UI benefits has fluctuated in the current recession and the timing of the fluctuations was determined to a large extent by the political process.  The CARES Act, enacted in late March 2020 included several  provisions  related to the unemployment insurance system augmenting benefit levels, expanding the duration of benefits, and making UI available to workers who are not typically covered.

In particular, it temporarily boosted state UI benefit amounts through the  Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, which made an additional $600 in weekly benefits  available to all individuals eligible for state UI benefits beyond the amount for which they would normally receive. These benefits were authorized through July 31, 2020. Just after those benefits expired, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to pay  Lost Wage Assistance  of $300 out of FEMA funds until that ran out in September.

Congress made subsequent ad-hoc adjustments, providing additional benefits at some points, but not others, and at various levels (see chart). Although the initial expansion of benefits was well timed with respect to the start of the recession, the subsequent policy changes are largely disconnected from economic conditions. 

Benefit levels should be proportional to lost wages.  UI benefits are typically lower than the wages that they are replacing. However, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government sought to fully replace workers’ lost wages since workers were stopping work due to the shutdowns motivated by public health. But antiquated state technology infrastructure required that the enhanced benefits be provided in constant dollar amounts to all recipients rather than individually tailoring beneficiaries’  “replacement rate”  (weekly benefit/usual weekly wage).

As a result, many workers have been  better off on UI  than at their previous jobs. For example, for a full-time, full-year worker in California earning $20 per hour pre-pandemic, their replacement rate jumped from 50% to 125% to 87.5% to 50% and then settled back at 87.5%. For lower-wage workers, the replacement rates were even higher during the periods in which the additional benefits were available. Providing workers with benefits greater than their lost wages is a disincentive to work, particularly when those higher benefits extend into the early period of economic recovery. 

Elisabeth Buchwald: Some states are cutting unemployment payments to push people back to work—are extra benefits really keeping Americans out of the labor force?

A federal increase of UI benefit amounts over the state benefit in response to a recession is new. Traditionally, the main federal policy lever used to enhance UI benefits during a recession is to increase the length of time workers can receive benefits—but the timing of this type of enhancement has also faced issues in the past.  The permanent, joint state-federal extended benefit (EB) program automatically extends the number of weeks of benefits available when a state’s unemployment rate crosses a statutory threshold.

Although the EB program has a formal system to trigger the increase that does not depend on the political process, these automatic triggers have been  criticized   for years  for being ineffective, often failing to turn on even when economic conditions warrant it. This led the federal government to routinely implement ad-hoc adjustments to the maximum duration of benefits whenever a recession occurs.

Importantly, extended benefits does not help individuals or the economy until regular UI benefits have been exhausted (in the majority of states, this is after 26 weeks). Increasing the level of UI benefits is most useful as soon as the labor market crashes.

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