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Democrats are weakening their ambitions to reform unemployment insurance, despite major flaws in a system that has left millions of Americans with little help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Proposed a new bill that would set a minimum federal standard for the duration and eligibility of unemployment benefits. Specifically, the bill would guarantee 26 weeks of benefits for unemployed Americans.

Most states already grant 26 weeks of unemployment insurance, but seven do not, and in the past some states have cut unemployment benefits in order to balance their budgets. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) And Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also support this proposal.

The bill is a hugely stripped-down version of a bill proposed by Wyden and Bennet in April that not only guaranteed 26 weeks of benefits, but also created a standard for wage replacement, guaranteed extra help when levels of unemployment were high and also federalized a version of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was created to extend benefits to those who are not generally covered by unemployment, such as the self-employed or those in the odd-job economy.

Since then, federal unemployment benefits, which gave unemployed Americans an additional $ 300 a week during the pandemic, and the PUA program have both expired, leaving nearly 7.5 million Americans without additional help.

There has been no appetite to extend them among the Democrats; even President Joe Biden said it was appropriate for the benefits to expire. Democrats have also rolled back any major reform of the unemployment system, as Wyden and Bennet had previously proposed.

All this rhetoric that the Conservative Democrats have raised during the spending reconciliation process has lowered the ambitions of the Democratic Party.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.)

Wyden and his colleagues are hoping that the lean proposal can actually make it into the big budget reconciliation bill Democrats hope to pass this fall. This package, which could include up to $ 3.5 trillion in new federal spending, is intended to address key aspects of the party’s platform, from climate change to paid vacation, and can be passed on a partisan basis.

Over the past year, White House officials and Democrats from all walks of life have supported overhauling the UI system, but the cost still seems to frighten lawmakers. House Democrats included the idea of ​​tying benefits to economic conditions last summer, but scrapped the proposal after seeing how much federal spending it would require.

“This proposal is a down payment on the long overdue reform of our unemployment system and was designed to fit into our next package,” Wyden said in a statement to HuffPost, acknowledging the spending and political restrictions of the project. Democrats’ budget reconciliation law. “This system was intentionally broken to minimize the number of jobless workers who can access it, and we will take important steps to fix it.”

Democrats are already facing serious headwinds within their own party as they attempt to negotiate the budget reconciliation plan, with more moderate and conservative Democratic lawmakers fearful of overspending to create new agendas.


Spencer Platt via Getty Images

A hiring sign is displayed in a store window in Manhattan on August 19 in New York City.

“I believe that with all this rhetoric that the Conservative Democrats have raised during the spending reconciliation process has reduced the ambitions of the Democratic Party right now in extending unemployment benefits and, frankly, I think it ‘is a mistake, ”Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN .Y.), who made a lonely and unsuccessful attempt to extend federal unemployment benefits in the event of a pandemic earlier this month, told HuffPost.

This has left the nation’s unemployed in a constant state of limbo. To access benefits, laid-off workers had to wait long periods to navigate pending state systems; additional federal benefits have fluctuated in size, from the original $ 600 per week in the first COVID-19 relief bill, to $ 300 per week more recently. Now they are all completely expired. Some states, largely Republican-led, even cut increased benefits early, arguing without much statistical basis that the extra money discouraged work.

Meanwhile, there are still millions less jobs in the United States than before the pandemic, and hiring has slowed.

There are also large disparities between the amount that states pay for unemployment insurance; it ranges from a maximum of $ 240 per week in Arizona to $ 855 per week in Massachusetts. Poverty researchers found that increased federal unemployment benefits along with stimulus checks went a long way in reducing poverty during the pandemic.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis right now, but we also have a long-term problem that needs to be addressed. It cannot continue to be swept under the rug or pushed back, ”said Marianne LeBlanc, an independent major events coordinator from Nevada who was unemployed for long periods during the pandemic. LeBlanc, who began defending other unemployed Nevadans and those in her industry during the pandemic, said she would have had serious financial problems without the PUA program.

As cities begin to allow big events and shows again, she has been able to find work, but knows her work remains unpredictable as the pandemic continues.

“Situations like the one we are currently experiencing will continue to exist and will be a huge financial drain on our economy,” said LeBlanc. “Letting 10 million people fall off a financial cliff is going to have ramifications.”

She likened it to the plot of the popular Avengers movie “Endgame”.

“I equate that to the part of ‘Endgame’ where Thanos kicks in and he makes 50% of the population disappear, then the Avengers work exceptionally hard to restore that 50%, and when they come back, there’s no more. room for them.Everyone has evolved, life is in a totally different place.

“That’s what it’s like to be unemployed right now.”

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