According to labor advocates and Sen. Bernie Sanders
(I-Vt.), President Joe Biden
has the ability to prevent Republican-led states from fully cutting federal unemployment benefits
, but Biden appears uninterested.
More than a dozen Republican governors have said they will end federal unemployment programs, which provide an extra $300 per week plus benefits for gig workers, because beneficiaries aren't motivated enough to work.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh
on Thursday, Sanders stated that the law establishing the program for gig workers gives the federal government no leeway to allow states to terminate the benefits.
“It is critical that the Department of Labor do everything in its power to ensure that jobless Americans continue to receive this assistance in the manner intended by law,” Sanders wrote.
The Labor Department
's response was noncommittal.
“Secretary Walsh and the Biden Administration
have done everything they can to take concrete action to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks, as we know unemployment benefits have served as a vital lifeline for workers throughout the pandemic to help them buy food
, pay rent, and stay healthy,” a department spokesman said in an email to Stardia on Thursday.
It’s not surprising that the Biden Administration isn’t getting into a fight with Republican governors over benefits. Red states began announcing cuts last week amid widespread complaints of a “worker shortage.” Biden has denied that benefits are causing a worker shortage, but on Monday, he reminded workers that they can’t keep their benefits if they refuse suitable job offers.
“If you are receiving unemployment benefits and are offered a suitable job, you cannot refuse that job and continue to receive unemployment benefits,” Biden said at a White House
More than a million workers will lose federal benefits beginning next month, as states withdraw from programs that lawmakers intended to last until September. Many of the workers will simply revert to regular state benefits, which means they will receive a few hundred dollars or less per week, but without the extra $300.
However, the vast majority of affected workers are enrolled in federal long-term benefits or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program for people
who are ineligible for regular unemployment because they have not been laid off from a traditional payroll job. Congress
established the program as a backstop for regular state benefits, which do not cover workers such as ride-share drivers.
The part of the law that created the gig worker program — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — states that the U.S. labor secretary "shall" pay those benefits to all eligible workers. In federal law, "shall" is a strong word implying that the government cannot decide not to do something.
The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy organization, wrote to Walsh earlier this week, demanding that the Labor Department either force states to keep the PUA benefits or pay them itself.
“If DOL does not exercise one of these options, or develop their own ability to take and pay claims, they will not only cause significant harm to our most vulnerable, but they will also be in direct violation of their duty to provide PUA benefits under the CARES Act,” NELP said.
Sanders has embraced the NELP analysis, stating that the government must not only continue to pay PUA claims, but it must also pair them with the additional $300. Workers enrolled in long-term benefits, which states are also canceling, may switch to PUA.
Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who helped write the law and has stated that the Labor Department should consider its options, did not support Sanders' approach.
“We want them to use every legal authority they have to protect workers,” Wyden told Stardia on Thursday, declining to expressly support the idea of forcing benefits to be continued.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic
, Congress established the weekly supplement, gig worker benefits, and a program for people whose joblessness outlasts state benefits; states voluntarily participate in each program via an agreement with the Labor Department.
After the $600 in weekly benefits expired last summer, the Trump
administration unilaterally created a Lost Wages Assistance program, giving workers an extra $300 for six weeks (Congress later added a $300 supplement in December).
According to Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-director of the Georgetown University law school's Center on Poverty and Inequality, the law appears to obligate the Labor Department to ensure that eligible individuals receive PUA benefits.
“There is a plausible case to be made in court that the Biden Administration needs to get them these payments through some state agreement,” Dutta-Gupta said.