Sanders Urges Labor Secretary to Protect Jobless Benefits as GOP Governors Race to Cut Them Off

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Thursday urged Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to use his legal authority to ensure that jobless workers across the U.S. continue to receive emergency unemployment aid as Republican governors race to cut off crucial federal benefits months early.

“Next month, over 1.1 million workers in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming will be at risk of losing some or all of the unemployment benefits Congress extended in the American Rescue Plan,” Sanders (I-Vt.), the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, wrote in a letter (pdf) to Walsh.

“Workers who lack access to childcare, have lost employer-sponsored health insurance, and fear for their health and safety as we work to get every American vaccinated are entitled to these benefits.”
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Last March—as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—Congress approved Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a program designed to provide jobless benefits to gig workers and others who are not eligible for regular unemployment compensation.

The CARES Act also originally provided a $600-per-week federal boost on top of state-level jobless benefits—an add-on that has since been scaled back to $300 and is set to expire along with PUA in September.

But in recent days, Republican governors have moved to prematurely end both PUA and the $300 weekly enhancement for their residents, falsely claiming that the benefits are dissuading people from returning to the workforce—not lack of child care, low wages, pandemic-related health concerns, or other factors.

In his letter, Sanders argued that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is obligated under the CARES Act to provide PUA aid and the $300-per-week supplement, given that “Congress did not grant states the ability to strip PUA benefits away from vulnerable workers.”

“Further, the CARES Act requires that PUA benefits include the $300 top-off—even if states opt-out of this supplement for other benefit programs,” wrote Sanders, who warned Walsh that many workers “will be forced into poverty—either with unfair wages or no income at all—if you fail to provide these benefits.”

“Workers who lack access to childcare, have lost employer-sponsored health insurance, and fear for their health and safety as we work to get every American vaccinated are entitled to these benefits,” the Vermont senator added.

Sanders is hardly alone in calling on Walsh to do everything in his power to ensure that jobless workers continue receiving benefits regardless of Republican governors’ actions.

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In statement earlier this week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) accused state GOP leaders of engaging in “economic sabotage by pulling the rug out from jobless workers” and implored the Labor Department to “explore all options to keep these workers from losing their income.”

“Mothers without child care are not going to be back on the job in just a few weeks’ time, and they shouldn’t face financial ruin for living in states run by Republicans,” added Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday became the latest Republican leader to announce that his state will no longer participate in PUA, the $300 weekly federal supplement, and other emergency unemployment programs. Eligible Georgians will continue receiving regular state unemployment benefits, which range from $55 to $365 per week.

Andrew Stettner of The Century Foundation estimates that if every Republican governor pulls out of the federally-funded emergency unemployment programs, 4.8 million workers would lose benefits early.

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In a letter to Walsh on Tuesday, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) argued that unless the Labor Department takes action to compel states to continue distributing the benefits or pays the benefits itself, “DOL will not only cause significant harm to our most vulnerable, it will be in direct violation of their duty to provide PUA benefits under the CARES Act.”

Read Sanders’ full letter, which lays out a similar argument:

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