Top Democrats are calling on President Biden to permanently reform unemployment and beef up benefits

  • Top Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, are calling on Biden to permanently reform unemployment.
  • In a letter sent on Friday, Democrats asked for federal benefits standard and expanded eligibility.
  • They want the reforms to come as part of Biden’s next infrastructure package.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A group of Democratic lawmakers is calling on President Joe Biden to incorporate wider-reaching and permanent unemployment measures in the next economic package he’s set to unveil next week.

In a letter sent on Friday, the lawmakers called on Biden to increase both the amount of unemployment benefits and their duration as part of his latest infrastructure plan. They note that many states slashed jobless aid in the wake of the Great Recession, and they want to set a federal standard for benefits.

Thirty-eight Democratic lawmakers signed onto the letter, including top senators such as Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Ron Wyden of Oregon; and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. The letter also included Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon; Suzan DelBene of Washington; and Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

“Unemployed workers really had totally different qualities of life, totally different standards of support based solely on where they live,” David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI), told Insider. “As a consequence of that, the data show that in those states where lawmakers had really weakened their state unemployment insurance systems, federal money made up for a larger and larger share of the support going to unemployed workers.”

The Democratic lawmakers also want UI benefits to be accessible to more workers. They cite the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which expanded eligibility of UI to gig workers and freelancers. According to the letter, over 16 million workers have received PUA benefits during the pandemic. A new EPI report found that, by the end of 2020, “PUA made up the largest share of federal UI assistance … contributing 33% of total UI income.”

Finally, the group of Democrats wants to reform the Extended Benefits  program to put it on autopilot during economic downturns. That program is meant to provide extra weeks of unemployment benefits in states with high unemployment. But the lawmakers argue that the extensions aren’t enough, and that the program is not responsive to downturns, leaving extensions up to Congress instead.

“I think one of the lessons we should learn from what happened in the pandemic is that setting these arbitrary deadlines, then programs expire, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Cooper said. “Unemployment should be readily accessible to all workers any time they lose their job.”

Beyond the longer-term measures, the Democrats want Biden to extend emergency programs throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

Wyden and Bennet recently put forward a new plan for an overhaul of the nation’s unemployment system after the pandemic exposed major weaknesses, particularly in the distribution of aid to laid-off workers. Their plan calls for a 75% wage replacement rate, and penalties for states that break from federal standards.

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