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Before cutting federal unemployment benefits, make sure workers can get work

Republicans say they fear that workers who get federal assistance won’t go back to their jobs when they can. To which we would ask: What jobs?

Notes noting that restaurants are closed, like this sign in downtown Chicago, have become a hallmark of the pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In just a little over two months, more than a million Illinois residents have applied for unemployment benefits.

They did not do so, as some politicians in Washington would have you believe, because they would rather not work. They did so because their jobs disappeared, wiped out by Illinois’ stay-at-home order as the coronavirus spread.

Across the country, 38.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the last nine weeks. And many analysts warn that unemployment rates could rise higher still, outpacing anything seen even during the Great Depression.

For all of that — despite the continued worries of millions of Americans who just want to feed their families and stay in their homes — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week flatly stated that the next coronavirus aid package would not extend federal unemployment benefits, which provide an extra $600 a week to out-of-work Americans. The federal benefits are set to expire in July.

President Donald Trump doesn’t want to extend the benefits, either, though House Democrats are calling for an extension through the remainder of the year. The federal benefits are in addition to state benefits, which last for 26 weeks in most parts of the country.

What’s going on here? Politicians who blithely enacted tax cuts for the rich that drove up annual federal budget deficits can’t seriously claim now to be troubled by deficits.

No, they say, their real concern is that giving people federal unemployment benefits destroys their incentive to go back to their jobs.

To which we would ask: What jobs?

It’s true that the combination of state and federal unemployment benefits does temporarily pay many workers more money than they got from working. And some people, no doubt, will collect that money as long as they can.

But most workers who have a chance to go back to work — in a pandemic-safe environment — fully understand that their unemployment benefits won’t last indefinitely. Moreover, working-age Americans generally get their health insurance through their employer. No job, no health insurance.

What really makes McConnell’s position so mean-spirited is that the jobs he fears people won’t take just aren’t there. Not yet, and not by a long shot.

You don’t see large numbers of businesses complaining that they want to reopen but can’t because their workers prefer to say home. Beggaring workers won’t make jobs miraculously appear. It will only drag down the economy further because Americans will have even less to spend.

Federal unemployment benefits won’t continue forever. The American economy one day will recover. But to end federal benefits six weeks from now because of some stupid notion that workers will be able to rush back to their jobs — their nonexistent jobs — is unconscionable.

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