Cutting unemployment during pandemic is immoral, wrong

Charlie Wishman is president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO. -promoted by Laura Belin

The COVID-19 pandemic has been not only a public health disaster, but also an economic disaster. Many Iowans have experienced filing for unemployment for the first time this past year. As a result, many now realize just how important this lifeline can be for working people and their families. 

You can tell a lot about what kind of legislature we collectively elected by looking at how lawmakers respond to the economic disaster that is COVID-19. Right now, the Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate are moving a bill forward that would reduce unemployment benefits, inexplicably, during a global pandemic. 

Are we as a state going to continue to allow the rich to stuff their pockets during this pandemic while families suffer? Or worse, will we actively encourage it? Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening now.

House Study Bill 203 and Senate Study Bill 1172 do not contain new concepts. Iowa Workforce Development has pushed this policy in previous years, but labor and our allies have been able to fight off these attacks for the last two legislative sessions

This "astonishingly callous" proposal does several things, but the most egregious perhaps is the proposal to institute a one week waiting period – for no justifiable policy reason – for anyone who applies for unemployment. No one I know who has ever been laid off (through no fault of their own) ever wanted to lose their job or go on unemployment, which does not cover all of their lost wages. Making that family wait a week to start collecting unemployment when people are struggling to pay the rent, buy food, and even just keeping a car running, is unthinkable.

Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck. Now, depending on what study you are looking at, around two-thirds of Americans, perhaps more, are living from paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford any major bills, let alone job loss and the complete loss of income for one week.

Besides the waiting period, these bills would allow a person to claim only one dependent for their unemployment as well. Currently, Iowa allows an individual to claim up to four dependents. Why would we cut back on unemployment for families during a public health crisis? When Governor Kim Reynolds kept saying, “we’re going to get through this together,” that apparently meant Republicans and big business, not our families.

In addition, this legislation would disproportionately hurt rural Iowa. It cuts the number of weeks available in the case of a business closing by thirteen weeks. I grew up in rural Iowa, and I understand what it means when an industry or plant that sustains that town goes under. People receiving those benefits are not getting rich by any stretch – they are using those dollars to keep main street alive until the town can get back on its feet. In this situation, unemployment benefits can help keep a town or area going while it takes time for the private sector to recover--if it ever does.

Republican State Representative Dave Deyoe and State Senator Zach Whiting have introduced this year's legislation in their capacity as chairs of the Iowa House and Senate Labor Committees, respectively. These drastic cuts to unemployment are being championed and sponsored by the powerful business lobby group Iowa Association of Business and Industry. Other groups lobbying for the legislation include the Iowa Chamber Alliance and some local chamber of commerce groups, as well as the National Federation of Independent Business and Associated Business and Contractors of Iowa. 

Groups opposing these cuts include many labor unions and labor organizations, as well as Common Good Iowa, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa Catholic Conference, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, and even the Iowa Mental Health Planning Council.

Protecting unemployment benefits is the right thing to do for workers in this state and for rural Iowa. This legislature and Governor Reynolds need to stop these plans from moving forward and get back to the work that Iowans sent them there to do. Please contact your state representative as well as your state senator to oppose this bill. Cutting unemployment benefits during a pandemic is not just bad economic policy, it is downright cruel and immoral.

Top photo of Charlie Wishman provided by the author and published with permission.

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