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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Worker safety: Who gets protected?

Posted June 17th, 2020 to Blog

The COVID-19 crisis poses a dizzying combination of health and economic risks, and it has forced us to rethink the ways in which our public policies protect us against those risks. The underlying logic of the CARES Act, for example, was based on the assumption that sharing public spaces — especially workplaces — posed a grave threat to the public health. Its benefits — including a limited program of paid leave and a relatively generous expansion of unemployment insurance — were designed to make not working and sheltering in place possible.

That instinct was right but its execution was dismally flawed. State unemployment systems could not begin to manage the avalanche of claims. The virus flourished in settings — most starkly meatpacking plants — that ploughed ahead as “essential” businesses. And states impatient to open up again did everything they could to discourage workers from accessing the new federal benefits — a point Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend all but conceded in testimony before Congress last week.

From the first hint of the virus to the rush to reopen, Iowa has done perilously little to protect its workers, their families, and their communities. Safe workplaces are pretty clearly defined in the guidelines developed by both the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). But there is nothing in state or federal law that compels employers to follow them, and ample evidence that many are not. Even in the midst of local outbreaks, county health directors lacked the authority to shut down production. “They just don’t get it,” as the Tama County emergency management coordinator, complained in the midst of an outbreak at the National Beef plant there, “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” As Governor Reynolds coldly reminded us in late May: “Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect both the lives and the livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”

Those priorities came into sharper focus this week. In a brief and largely aimless session, the Iowa Legislature offered scarcely a passing reference to the health and economic insecurity facing Iowa’s working families. They did, however, jump to address the insecurity of Iowa employers — offering up blanket immunity from COVID related claims coming from workers or consumers.

The “COVID-19 Response and Back to Business Limited Liability Act” (Senate File 2338) requires that any claims of exposure to the virus meet a standard of “reckless disregard” or “actual malice.” Employers “shall not be held liable for civil damages for any injuries sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 if the act or omission alleged to violate a duty of care was in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or state statute, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure.” Since such regulations or guidelines are virtually non-existent, it is hard to imagine what such threshold might look like.

At a time of such peril and uncertainty, this is a remarkable and damning expression of our state’s priorities. It is a solution in search of a problem; there has been no stampede of frivolous damage claims — in Iowa or elsewhere. And it ignores the more obvious and equitable tack, which is to protect the workers in the first place, and allow them to refuse work (and draw unemployment benefits) if that protection is not sufficient. “Everybody wins when businesses follow clear, science-based guidelines to protect health and safety,” as The New York Times put it in a recent editorial. “Workers and customers are less likely to get exposed to the virus, and businesses are less likely to get exposed to litigation.”

Now, more than ever, our public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward; on whom they protect, and whom they do not. The blanket immunity offered Iowa businesses by SF2338, alongside our abject and continuing failure to offer any meaningful protection for Iowa’s workers, fails that assessment on all counts.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Encourage Iowans to seek both jobless, housing benefits

Posted June 4th, 2020 to Blog

Amidst the worst employment crisis since the Great Depression, Governor Kim Reynolds and her colleagues seem fixated not on the magnitude of the crisis, but on the generosity of the CARES Act unemployment programs and the obstacle they apparently pose to getting Iowans back to work.

First, Iowa Workforce Development issued a chilling directive (from which they have now retreated) which very nearly suggested that only those actually laid out by the virus had any claim on unemployment insurance. Now the new “Iowa Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Program,” (which offers rental and mortgage assistance to households “at risk of eviction or foreclosure due to a documented COVID-19 related loss of income”) actually disqualifies those receiving unemployment insurance from applying.

The logic here is difficult to fathom. Those thrown out of work by the pandemic are struggling to make ends meet, and to sustain rent or mortgage payments. Aren’t these exactly the Iowans who should be eligible for a program of rental or mortgage assistance? Instead, the new program offers assistance to “Iowans who have been economically impacted by COVID-19,” in one breath and then snatches it away in the next — penalizing and stigmatizing those most at need by treating receipt of the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) benefit ($600 a week through July 25) like a failed drug test.

But even if we put aside the savage inequity of this, the Governor’s evident distaste for the federal supplements to unemployment insurance is just bad fiscal policy. Let’s do the math. As of this week, 178,619 Iowans are receiving regular unemployment benefits and another 17,545 are receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The $600 PUC benefit (payable to those in regular UI and PUA) and the base benefit for those in the PUA are all paid with federal dollars. That’s an inflow of over $120 million a week into the pockets of working Iowans.

If we assume an effective state income tax rate of 2.3 percent and effective sales tax rate of 5.3 percent (both based on estimates by the Institute for Tax and Economic Policy for Iowans earning between $22,000 and $40,000/year), that’s a boost to state income tax receipts of $2.8 million dollars a week,[1] and a boost to state and local sales tax receipts of $6.4 million dollars a week. In the seven weeks before the PUC expires July 25, that’s a net revenue of gain of $64.5 million — or enough to pay for the mortgage and rental assistance program (which has been allotted $22 million of Iowa’s CARES Act funds) almost three times over.

And these are conservative estimates. The unemployment totals do not include the over 150,000 UI (including those from the last two weeks) that have been filed but not yet processed. They do not include the retroactive benefits payable to those qualifying for UI. They are based on the minimum monthly benefit under the PUA. And they do not include the stimulus or tax revenue impact of state-funded UI benefits.

For the health and safety of working Iowans, we should be encouraging and enabling as many as possible to qualify for unemployment benefits. And, as long as federal government is picking up the tab, we should jump at the chance to backfill state and local budgets with the tax revenues that accompany such benefits.

[1] The state’s June 3 fiscal update echoes this estimate, attributing a $31.4 million increase in state income tax receipts over the 10-week period from March 19 to June 2 ($3.1 million a week) to withholding from UI benefits. This estimate is slightly higher because it includes the withholding from state-funded benefits as well.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Faster infection pace, fewer limits

Posted May 14th, 2020 to Blog

A number of Iowa counties are seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, even as the Governor continues to reopen the Iowa economy and further relax social distancing requirements.

In Wapello County, cases soared from 10 on April 28 to 306 two weeks later. Over that same time period, Crawford County saw an increase from 21 to 207, and Sioux County from 8 to 103. Yet instead of reinstituting social distancing in those hot spots, the Governor has expanded her relaxation of requirements on businesses from 77 counties to all counties statewide.

Given the problems and delays with testing, and the lack of widespread testing, it is difficult to know just how many Iowans are actually infected with the coronavirus, and whether there are other emerging hotspots that remain unidentified. But we do know where there have been major increases in identified cases. For the most recent two-week period, the table below shows the 16 counties with the highest number of new cases per 100,000 population over the past two weeks (through May 12).

When adjusted for population, we see that many rural counties are experiencing more rapid growth than urban centers, many of which (Linn, Johnson, Scott) did not even make this list. Half the counties on the list (indicated by shading) are among the 77 counties where restrictions were first relaxed on May 1.

Most of those eight counties we identified last week as likely hot spots based on the growth in cases up to that point. New additions to the list are Monroe and Osceola, where the total number of cases is not large, but where we may be seeing the beginning of a surge. Six of the eight shaded counties saw their case count more than double in the past week.

It is easiest to see which counties have grown the fastest if we compare the cases per 100,000 population and how this number changed since the county first hit 50 cases. The counties are compared on the basis of when the surge began in their county. Wapello and Crawford have been growing at much the same rate as Woodbury, notably one of the top counties in the entire country in terms of the size and rate of the coronavirus surge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Fisher is research director for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

Sheltering the data in place

Posted April 8th, 2020 to Blog

Governor Kim Reynolds over the past few weeks has moved incrementally to close more kinds of businesses, to the point where Iowa’s restrictions now resemble those of states that have a blanket statewide “shelter in place” order. Significant distinctions remain: a proper and comprehensive shelter in place order closes all businesses except those specified as essential, leaving no ambiguities and loopholes, and comes with clear and enforceable restrictions on travel and social activities.

The governor continues to assert that her recommendations are driven by the same four metrics that have guided her since the beginning and that only recently became partly public information due to efforts by the press. We provided a thorough analysis of that guidance several days ago. On Tuesday, we finally learned about one of those metrics: There are three long-term care facilities with a sufficient number of COVID-19 cases to be classified as a facility with an outbreak.

We now know enough to construct the point system in spite of stonewalling by the Governor’s Office.

The first of the four measures — percent of population age 65 or over — can be found from census data. The second — cases per 100,000 population — can be calculated because the number of cases has been released by IDPH by county. The third — outbreaks at care facilities — is now known, with locations, because of a question at a press conference.

That leaves the fourth — hospitalizations as a percent of cases — that is unknown by county or region because the governor still refuses to release the data. But we know the total score by region because it shows up on the maps that are intermittently released at press conferences (but remain unavailable on the IDPH website). Thus by subtraction we can determine that all four regions must be at the highest level, a 3, on the hospitalization rate score.

From here on out, the only thing that can change is the cases per 100,000 population and the number of care facility outbreaks. Region 5 is already at the maximum on the cases measure, and regions 1 and 6 will likely get there soon, leaving all three regions with a score of 9, 1 short of 10, the number that supposedly triggers shelter in place. So those regions, covering a large majority of the state’s population and COVID-19 cases, can get to 10 only with another outbreak at a care facility.

The governor on the one hand argues that we already have the equivalent of shelter in place, and at the same time the metric that she says still guides her decisions shows that shelter in place is not yet warranted anywhere in the state. Has that metric really been used thus far, and in what way? How do you get from the metrics to a list of particular additional businesses to close? What will happen when a region reaches 10? Will the governor order more stringent measures in just that region? Or will the whole thing be scrapped once a proper forecasting model is developed that meets with her approval?

One thing is clear: transparency has been sadly lacking, and for no apparent reason.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Too soon to consider recovery?

Posted April 1st, 2020 to Blog
What is needed in a pandemic is for citizens to stay home, and for public policy to assure access to unemployment insurance and health care, and push support to the health system. Economists such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are making these points — that limiting the spread of the coronavirus is the top priority to save lives.[1] When even economists are pressing the point about public health, our leaders should pay attention. Now is not the time to talk about being “open for business” prematurely, as President Trump once suggested we do by Easter. That is not to say a public health spotlight precludes steps in the coming weeks and months to set up recovery when that can be the main focus. Now, jobs remain in critical services in hospitals and electric stations, and some in construction. Factories where people stand next to each other on a production line have different social distancing from workers who build things in the open air. We could expand more of the latter jobs right now where the materials are at hand. Good examples: Wind turbines and solar installations and the power lines that connect them to the electric grid. Right now we could be constructing clean energy facilities that can be producing electricity in six months or a year when we all want demand to expand. It is an opportune moment to think ahead and start replacing older coal production plants, which have their own health problems. Public policy has a role here. Just before the Iowa legislators recessed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they passed — and Governor Kim Reynolds signed — a bill to stabilize the solar industry. It would do this by setting the price for the next seven years for the electricity that MidAmerican and Alliant buy from homeowners and businesses.[2] Another step the Legislature could take is lifting the limit on the tax credit for businesses and homeowners when they install solar. The annual amount that could be taken on the credit was not fully used in the first year, but in all years since 2013 installations exceeded the cap, now at $5 million per year, pushing installations completed later in the year to a waitlist.[3] The tax credit eventually comes but not until at least a year later. While an installation completed today will get a federal tax credit when taxes are filed in April 2021, the Iowa tax credit will not happen until 2022 or later. Why make these Iowa investors wait? Extending the total amount eligible for the credit from $5 million to perhaps $20 million would further stimulate the construction of solar panels just when the economy needs the jobs. There also is a federal role, as the amount of that credit for both solar and wind is phasing out. This would be a good time to stop the phaseout for the next several years. Tax credits of electric cars could also be enhanced. COVID-19 has slammed the economy. We need to think about when we will recover but also how we will recover. Jobs in clean energy have been on a growth curve that can be re-established quickly. And these jobs are creating a new energy system that will help us with the next crisis, climate change. Most agree we should follow science to confront the pandemic. We should also follow the science to prepare for the next crisis — climate change. David Osterberg is an economist and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org. A version of this column also ran in the April 1 Quad-City Times.         [1] MSNBC interview, March 17, 2020. https://www.msnbc.com/the-beat-with-ari/watch/-our-economy-is-shutting-down-clinton-wh-veteran-pushes-lives-over-dollars-in-covid-19-crisis-80868933847 [2] O. Kay Henderson. Iowa House and Senate give solar bill unanimous support. Radio Iowa March 4, 2020. https://www.radioiowa.com/2020/03/04/iowa-house-and-senate-give-solar-bill-unanimous-support/ [3] Iowa Department of Revenue. Solar Energy System Tax Credit Annual Report for 2019. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/DF/1126111.pdf

New solutions needed long term

Posted March 26th, 2020 to Blog
Current estimates of job losses in the COVID-19 recession are hard to fathom. Even with a sizable stimulus, the national economy would shed nearly 14 million jobs by mid-summer; Iowa is projected to lose more than 140,000. To make matters worse, as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute underscores, this recession is “laser-targeted at low-wage, low-productivity, and low-hours jobs in service industries.”[1] Our most vulnerable workers, in other words, will bear much of the burden: They do not have the option of working from home — a luxury enjoyed by two-thirds of workers in the top quarter of the earning distribution and by one-third of white workers, but by fewer than 1 in 10 workers in the bottom quarter of the distribution, 1 in 5 African-American workers and 1 in 6 Latinx workers. These vulnerable workers face both a much greater risk of unemployment as the service economy shuts down and a heightened risk of exposure to the virus if they keep working. This is a scale of unemployment and social and economic dislocation that our existing programs are ill-equipped to handle. This demands a policy response — state and federal — unprecedented in its scale, and innovative in its efforts to reach those most affected. At the forefront of that policy response is both a dramatic expansion and a fundamental rethinking of unemployment insurance. The first step here has already been taken by the federal government. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (passed March 18) pumped $1 billion into the administration of state unemployment insurance (UI) programs, in exchange for new state standards and conditions. In order to draw down these funds, states must improve their methods of notifying workers of their eligibility for benefits, provide multiple (not just online) methods of filing, provide prompt notice of the receipt of a claim, waive waiting periods for benefits, waive the requirement that recipients be actively searching for work, and ensure that employers are held blameless for COVOID-19 layoffs. (Conventionally, UI is “experience-rated” so that employers with histories of layoffs are taxed at a higher rates). As Peter Fisher pointed out in recent days, Iowa has met all these conditions. There is still a lot of work to be done — not just to meet the current crisis, but to ensure that our unemployment insurance system is recast for the 21st century and ready for the next crisis. The first task is to make unemployment insurance accessible and available to more workers. In Iowa, just 41 percent of unemployed workers ever see a benefit check. This is better than the national rate (28 percent), but it is still a scandal that well over half of the jobless are left in the cold. We should sustain the “Families First” Act’s commitment to raising the recipiency rate by streamlining the claims process. Federal and state unemployment law should revise our definition of “employee” to better capture the diversity of employment (including the self-employed, gig workers, and the like) in the modern economy. Too often, workers — cleaners, homecare workers, delivery drivers — are misclassified as “independent contractors” and shut out of basic social insurance programs like UI. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program embedded in the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to those (like the self-employed) otherwise ineligible for UI. This is a start — but the real fix would be to recast the law so that such workers are eligible in good times and bad. By the same token, we should make permanent the more generous standard for a “good cause” separation, allowing workers — not just in pandemic conditions — to qualify for UI when they leave their jobs for compelling personal reasons. And we should be more flexible on the terms of “monetary eligibility.” As it stands, benefits in Iowa are based on earnings in the previous year.[2] Many other states allow workers with more sporadic work histories to elect an extended or alternative based period when calculating eligibility. Iowa should make better use of its work sharing program, which allows workers partial compensation for reduced hours, while retaining their attachment to the labor force and their access to job-based benefits such as pensions and health insurance. And we should make benefits available to new entrants to the labor force — students graduating into a recession, returning caregivers, the formerly incarcerated — who deserve support even in the absence of a recent work history. Second, we need to bolster the size and the duration of the basic benefit. Iowa’s current “replacement rate” is less than 50 percent of current wages — higher than the national average (38 percent) but still woefully insufficient to maintain basic expenses.[3] The logic here, of course, is that a low replacement rate will compel the unemployed to look for work. But low replacement rates (and short benefit windows) create enormous economic burdens and, by pressing workers back into the labor force, actually worsen re-employment prospects. As a baseline, UI benefits should be closer to two-thirds wages. And, for the duration of this crisis, they should be 100 percent. After all, places of employment are under order to close down, and those displaced have few options. This is why the pending stimulus bill bumps UI benefits by $600/week through the end of June. Finally, we need to improve the funding of state unemployment insurance programs. The $1 billion boost to administration in the “Families First” legislation does not come close to backfilling cuts in federal aid since the 1980s. During the last recession, 36 state UI trust funds went broke — and most of those entered the current crisis with insufficient reserves. Iowa’s trust fund is in better shape than most, but all state funds will be exhausted once this crisis lifts. Under current law, the state only taxes the first $7,000 in earnings. This should be increased dramatically (Social Security taxes the first $137,700), so that revenues are sufficient to sustain UI administration, and pay extended and disaster benefits when needed. Federal emergency legislation — some in place, some in the pipeline — will install many of these reforms on a temporary basis. But many of the problems being addressed — the accessibility of benefits for deserving workers, the low percentage of the unemployed who receive benefits, the insufficient level and duration of benefits — are broader problems with the UI system itself. Iowa should, of course, do what it can to qualify its workers for extended and enhanced benefits paid for with federal dollars. But it should also follow the lead of other states in making its UI system more secure and equitable on a permanent basis. [1] Josh Bivens, Economic Policy Institute, “Coronavirus shock will likely claim 3 million jobs by summer,” March 17, 2020. https://www.epi.org/blog/coronavirus-shock-will-likely-claim-3-million-jobs-by-summer/ [2] The previous year is defined as the 4 calendar quarters prior to the quarter immediately preceding the month you apply. So if you apply in March 2020, the most recently completed quarter is Oct-Dec 2019, so your benefits are based on earnings in the four quarters Oct-Dec 2018, Jan-Mar 2019, April-June 2019, and July-Sept. 2019. You must have earnings in at least two of those quarters. [3] The inadequacy of this replacement level is compounded by the fact that the benefits are still taxable, and yet they do not count as earnings for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit, creating an additional income loss for low wage workers receiving that tax credit. Colin Gordon is a University of Iowa professor of history and is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored several IPP reports since the organization began in 2001. Among these are the State of Working Iowa series, and the October 2019 report “Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity and Public Policy in the Midwest,” for Economic Analysis and Research Network members IPP, Policy Matters Ohio and COWS.

Lesson from the Recovery Act

Posted March 20th, 2020 to Blog
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a larger report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “Immediate and Robust Policy Response Needed in Face of Grave Risks to the Economy.” It points to lessons policy makers can take regarding state fiscal relief in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, enacted to move recovery from the Great Recession. For the full CBPP report, click here.

Providing Additional Needed State Fiscal Relief

Given the severe threat to the economy — and the resulting threat to state finances — states will likely need additional fiscal relief beyond what (a temporary increase in the share of Medicaid costs borne by the federal government, or FMAP) … would provide. During the last recession, states faced budget shortfalls totaling about $600 billion. The Recovery Act’s FMAP provisions provided roughly $100 billion in fiscal relief — a big help, but well short of what it would have taken for states to avoid laying off teachers and other workers and cutting services in other ways that deepened the recession. Increasing the FMAP is the single most important way to get fiscal relief efficiently to states, but Congress should also enact additional emergency fiscal aid to states. We recommend that this added fiscal relief take a similar form to the Recovery Act’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), which provided roughly $60 billion in fiscal aid to states. Given the wide range of fiscal challenges states are facing, they should have significant flexibility over how to spend this aid. The SFSF required states to spend 82 percent of the aid on education, including both K-12 and higher education. A new version of the SFSF should allow states to spend a smaller percentage of the aid on education, so that states are free to best respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic fallout, but still require that a substantial share be used to support state education systems. While many schools and universities will likely be closed in the next few weeks, teachers still need to be paid (to avoid hardship and further drag on the economy). And if revenues decline as sharply as expected, states will face serious difficulties in adequately supporting their schools in the coming fiscal year, when schools will be trying to make up for lost class time. Education accounts for roughly 40 percent of state spending, the single largest part of state budgets, making it very difficult for states to avoid cutting educational services when revenues decline sharply. As under the Recovery Act, states would be required to distribute funding to schools using their existing funding formulas, which favor low-income districts, or by distributing funding directly to Title I schools (schools that serve a large number of disadvantaged students). States should also be encouraged to use the funding to increase college tuition assistance for low-income people facing a tough job market and students whose families’ ability to help pay for school has diminished. Targeting state fiscal aid to protect education systems in the coming year would benefit the nation’s economy in the longer term by improving the educational outcomes of students, many of whom are now missing weeks of school. And requiring states to distribute a substantial share of this aid to schools would help protect against some states accepting the aid and then using it instead to cut taxes. As under the Recovery Act, this new version of the SFSF should include a maintenance-of-effort provision that requires states to maintain their own education spending at current levels. Finally, Congress should also consider certain forms of direct aid to localities, whose own budgets will also be deeply harmed. For example, Congress should consider direct aid to public transit systems, whether buses or subways, which stand to lose much of their fare revenue in coming weeks — losses that many of these systems will likely have difficulty recovering from on their own and that will further strain local budgets, risking cuts in other needed public services. This excerpt is one small section of a CBPP report by Sharon Parrott, Aviva Aron-Dine, Michael Leachman, Chad Stone, Dottie Rosenbaum, LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D., Peggy Bailey, Chuck Marr, and Kathleen Romig. We share it on the Iowa Policy Project blog as an example of one approach that research and experience have shown will be needed as states and local governments attempt to contribute to recovery from the current health emergency.

Time for state to act

Posted March 16th, 2020 to Blog
170118_capitol_170603-4x4The Pelosi-Mnuchin stimulus package that passed the U.S. House on Friday includes many measures to protect ordinary Americans who may see lost wages or who may need to stay away from work because someone in the family needs attention. According to The Washington Post:

“The agreement reached Friday is primarily aimed at expanding the safety net to cope with the potentially catastrophic economic impact of the coronavirus. In addition to ensuring free coronavirus testing, the plan would dramatically increase several benefits, particularly family medical leave and paid sick leave, while also bolstering unemployment insurance; spending on health insurance for the poor; and food programs for children and the elderly.”[1]

The food program expansion “nullifies existing work requirements on the food stamp program.”[2] The medical leave and family leave section will allow up to two-thirds of salary to a great number of employees including full tax credits from employment tax for self-employed individuals.[3] The federal share of Medicaid is boosted and unemployment insurance is strengthened. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the Medicaid boost means an additional $240 million is available for Iowa.[4] Noted CBPP’s Jennifer Sullivan:

The House COVID-19 bill’s temporary Medicaid funding boost, if in effect for all of calendar year 2020, would deliver roughly $35 billion in immediate, needed relief to states, which will face growing costs due to the virus and a likely economic downturn. … Similar measures have been a critical part of economic stimulus packages under both Democratic and Republican administrations….

The bill, expected to pass the Senate in a few days, addresses what many expect to be a downturn in the economy caused by the pandemic reaching U.S. shores. Responsible actions at the federal level require a state response as well. Iowa Policy Project blog posts in recent days have noted good opportunities: First, Iowa needs improvements in the unemployment system: (1) Relax the job search requirements to enable individuals forced into unemployment by the virus to collect UI benefits; (2) Allow individuals forced to take a leave of absence to collect UI during that period; (3) Establish procedures for individuals losing a job for health safety reasons or to care for a family member with the virus to qualify for UI, and (4) Establish rules under which employers’ unemployment experience rating is not harmed by virus-related layoffs.[5] Second, Iowans need strong Medicaid and SNAP benefits now more than ever. The safety net helps us all — not just current beneficiaries, but also those on the edge of financial security and the general economy. Any legislation, such as SF430 and HF2030, that imposes new bureaucratic hurdles for struggling Iowans not only will take food and doctor’s visits away when people need them the most, but hurt local communities as well.[6] [1] Erica WernerMike DeBonisPaul Kane and. Jeff Stein. The Washington Post, “House passes coronavirus economic relief package with Trump’s support,” March 14, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2020/03/13/paid-leave-democrats-trump-deal-coronavirus/ [2] Ibid [3] H. R. 6201 Making emergency supplemental appropriations for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, and for other purposes. Page 93 and 103. https://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20200309/BILLS-116hr6201-SUS.pdf [4] Jennifer Sullivan, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Medicaid Funding Boost for States Can’t Wait,” updated March 13, 2020. https://bit.ly/3d1jPBQ [5] Peter Fisher. IowaPolicyPoints.org blog post,Protecting workers from coronavirus impacts.” March 14, 2020. [6] Natalie Veldhouse. IowaPolicyPoints.org blog post, “Make Iowa resilient: Strengthen supports for working families.” March 13, 2020. osterberg_david_095115David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project and is a researcher with the organization. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org  

Protecting workers from coronavirus impacts

Posted March 14th, 2020 to Blog

Widespread cancellation of public events and travel and the closure of public schools and universities across the state will deeply affect many Iowa workers. Some will lose jobs. Others will have hours reduced, particularly in the hospitality sector: hotels, restaurants, bars, event centers, tourist attractions, movie theaters and other entertainment and sports venues.

Those are among the jobs with the lowest hourly wages and are the least likely to include health insurance and sick leave benefits. Workers with less than a high-school education, women, and workers of color are over-represented in those occupations. That makes them more vulnerable in the current crisis.

Fortunately, a set of safety-net programs is already in place. It is designed to both help those workers and mitigate the impact on the Iowa economy: unemployment insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid in particular.

But these programs are not as strong or as comprehensive as they should be, and the impacts of the virus present additional problems. The Iowa Legislature should act now to bolster the effectiveness of those programs, both to help reduce the spread of the virus and to alleviate the economic hardship that is certain to become widespread.

First and most important, we need to make it possible for sick workers to stay home without losing their livelihood. If Congress fails to enact emergency paid sick leave, the state should step up to fill the void. The current crisis highlights the inadequacy of the current system.

The United States is nearly the only developed economy that fails to mandate paid sick leave. As a result, low-wage workers in our country and our state cannot afford to stay home; they have to show up for work and risk infecting customers and other workers. The failure to mandate sick leave for fear of imposing a cost on employers or taxpayers now threatens to contribute to a much wider economic cost, as the reaction to the virus threatens the livelihoods not only of low wage workers but of a wide swath of Iowa businesses. A recession made worse by inadequate public policies will cost us all.

Second, we need to make certain that our current system of unemployment insurance (UI) is adapted to the special problems presented by the virus pandemic. Unemployment insurance is not a substitute for paid sick leave; workers who lose their job because of illness are generally not eligible for UI. Someone put out of work must be ready and able to work and must actively seek work in order to qualify for UI benefits. The state can and should relax those work search requirements because of the post-pandemic circumstances.

Another problem arises when a business temporarily affected by the loss of customers puts workers on a leave of absence. In Iowa, a worker on a leave of absence is not considered unemployed. This must change. States do have discretion in this area, as outlined in a recent memo from the U.S. Department of Labor, which provides guidance in the case of an individual placed on leave because an employer temporarily shuts down due to COVID-19, or an individual is quarantined and will return to work with that employer at the end of the quarantine:

Federal law would permit a state to treat the separation here as a temporary layoff. States have significant discretion to determine able, available, and work search requirements, and they can determine that the suitable work for this individual is the job he or she intends to return to after business resumes. As provided in 20 CFR 604.5(a)(3), individuals are able to and available for work if their employer temporarily laid them off and the individuals remain available to work only for that employer.[1]

The Department of Labor has recognized other situations that can arise and provides further guidance on how states can adjust their UI program for the new circumstances. In the case where “[a]n individual is quarantined by a medical professional under government direction or leaves employment due to a reasonable risk of exposure or infection (i.e.; self-quarantine) or to care for a family member and either does not intend to return to the employer or the employer will not allow the individual to return.” In that case, federal law gives states discretion “to determine whether the separation here is a quit or a discharge and whether the circumstances are allowable under the state’s good cause/just cause provisions.”

Finally, employers should not be penalized for layoffs caused by this public health crisis; they should not have their experience rating downgraded and future UI insurance premiums raised in these circumstances.

Iowa legislators take need to step up and make these changes to our unemployment system rules:

  • Relax the job search requirements to enable individuals forced into unemployment by the virus to collect UI benefits;
  • Allow individuals to collect UI during a forced leave of absence;
  • Establish procedures for individuals to qualify for UI after losing a job for health safety reasons or to care for a family member with the virus, and
  • Establish rules to help employers, so that their unemployment experience rating is not harmed by virus-related layoffs.

These changes should be widely publicized, along with a reminder to employers that Iowa does have a short-time compensation program (work sharing) which can be a useful way of allowing workers to receive partial UI benefits when their hours have been cut. These changes are needed to help workers weather this economic situation, to facilitate taking workers out of employment when their continued work would jeopardize public health, and to reduce the impact of an economic downturn on Iowa businesses.

[1]   U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 10-20. March 12, 2020

2010-PF-2sqPeter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Make Iowa resilient: strengthen supports for working families

Posted March 13th, 2020 to Blog
170803-healthcare-acaThe Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is a good time to recognize the strong public structures we have in place to protect Iowans most vulnerable to economic challenges. Two federal-state programs are ready to address times like these: Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. A health emergency is an opportunity to bolster both programs to make sure they operate as intended, mitigating the impact on Iowans while our state and local leaders do what they can to contain the spread of the virus. These two work support programs ensure that Iowans have access to the food and medical care. The accessibility and adequate funding of these programs ensure all Iowans are protected. The specific programs help those who have fallen on hard times. Making sure everyone in society gets health care reduces the transmission of disease. When schools are closed, children who get free meals need SNAP to ensure there is enough food at home. These are especially important concerns during crises. Ironically, the integrity of these programs has been threatened recently at the federal and state levels:
  • State and federal attempts to impose additional work reporting requirements and redundant quarterly eligibility checks for benefits would kick some families off of these vital work supports.
  • Federal rule changes including time limits on benefits and eliminating efficient and streamlined processes to qualify, as well as budget cuts, all threaten the ability of SNAP to prop up workers, families and communities during an economic slowdown that may be one of the impacts of COVID-19.
  • Similarly, budget cuts and the move to block grants fly in the face of Medicaid’s stated goal to provide health care to low-income Americans especially during an economic downturn.
We need Medicaid and SNAP now more than ever. It would be a timely move for lawmakers to step back and recognize that the safety net helps us all. Iowa bills SF430 and HF2030 impose bureaucratic hurdles that will serve to take food and doctor’s visits away from Iowans. Especially during a public health crisis, we need our leaders looking for ways to help all Iowans get ahead. 2018-NV-6w_3497(1)Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org