Rep. Kildee: Unemployment benefits are a lifeline for millions and they must be extended

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COVID-19 continues to sweep across the nation, and Michigan is being hit especially hard. 

So far, over 6,000 people across our state have tragically lost their lives and over two million fellow Michiganders have lost their jobs from this terrible virus. The pandemic is a public health crisis that has also created an economic crisis for Michiganders worse than the Great Recession.

For 20 weeks in a row, there has been more than 1 million U.S. workers who lost their job and applied for unemployment benefits for the first time. Across the country, over 30 million Americans lost their jobs, and Michigan ranks sixth-worst in the nation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan’s unemployment rate stands at 14.8% — far above 3.8% in January 2020, before the coronavirus reached America. 

Even as we begin to reopen parts of our economy, jobs will not come back as fast as they were lost. And sadly, COVID-19 is already spiking again in many states, including Michigan, which could pause or roll back safe reopenings. That is why it is critical that Congress continues to act and support families, including enacting a strong unemployment insurance system that ensures every worker has a lifeline through this crisis.

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Unfortunately, due to inaction by Senate Republicans and President Trump, over 1.3 million Michiganders lost $600 a week in federally backed unemployment insurance benefits. Now, they will be forced to live on a maximum of $362 a week, which is not enough to pay rent, buy groceries and support a family. With so many Michiganders still out of work, this is causing great pain for families and our economy.

Over two months ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act to extend these unemployment benefits. Instead of passing this critical legislation in a timely fashion — before millions of Americans lost this lifeline—the Senate decided to play political games with Americans’ lives. So many Americans stand to lose everything now that they have lost these life-saving unemployment benefits. 

Since this pandemic hit, I’ve heard from thousands of constituents that, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs and needed unemployment to survive. Many saw a delay in their benefits because of unprecedented demand that overwhelmed state unemployment agencies. Without an unemployment benefit extension, many of our neighbors are fearful of how they will survive.

Crystal, a constituent from Burton, wrote me to say, “I fear my children and I are going to be left homeless and without food. I just don’t know what else we’d do.” After my office helped Shannon from Bay City, another constituent, receive her unemployment benefits — including a $600 week federally-backed benefit — she  told me, “Now we can pay our bills without falling behind. This is truly a hard time for everyone.”

Michigan’s jobless benefits are dated. The claims system is plagued with problems. So what can be done?

For Michiganders who are unemployed, the question of extending federal benefits is a matter of survival. It’s about keeping a roof over your head, feeding your family and making sure you can get life-saving prescriptions. The effects of cutting off expanded federal unemployment benefits in the face of this health and economic crisis will be absolutely devastating to many across our state and only exacerbate the problems caused by this pandemic.

Federal unemployment insurance is a boost for our overall economy. This is not trickle-down economics, like the massive Republican tax cut that went largely to the wealthy and corporations. Instead, this money goes directly to unemployed workers who, through no fault of their own, need a lifeline. 

Those who receive unemployment almost immediately spend it at local businesses, injecting much-needed capital into communities across the state. Now that  unemployment benefits have expired, Michigan’s economy will lose hundreds of millions of dollars a week until Congress acts.

Failing to extend expanded unemployment benefits will also hurt communities of color the hardest, as they have been the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people of color have higher COVID-19 related hospitalization and death rates. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently also found that people of color would be disproportionately cutoff of federal unemployment benefits, as communities of color face higher unemployment rates compared to others.

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When Republicans and Democrats passed legislation in March to provide the $600 weekly unemployment insurance benefit, the goal was to provide a safety net for workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. With cases once again rising, in many places it still is not safe to return to work and many businesses have not been able to reopen safely.  

I have made it clear that we are willing to work across the aisle to find a bipartisan solution that supports families and also rewards those who return to work – perhaps with a transitional benefit. However, Senate Republicans allowed the worst case scenario to occur: allow federal unemployment benefits to expire. 

Where is the empathy? Millions of Americans lost their unemployment benefits and will continue to struggle to put food on the table to feed their families. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are literally dining on alligator sausage and crab bisque at private lunches and have failed to come up with a plan.

As a country, we are better than this. The pandemic is far from over. We cannot leave people behind. To my Republican colleagues — I implore them to listen to the heartbreaking stories of their constituents and extend these life-saving federal unemployment benefits.