The Newest Unemployment Benefits Changes In The Latest COVID-19 Relief Bill

Laveta Brigham

Lorna Morton expected the government to stop paying her unemployment benefits next week, but now that Congress has passed another pandemic relief bill, she can receive them through March. Not knowing whether her benefits would continue, Morton said, “didn’t make me feel confident that I was going to be able […]

Lorna Morton expected the government to stop paying her unemployment benefits next week, but now that Congress has passed another pandemic relief bill, she can receive them through March.

Not knowing whether her benefits would continue, Morton said, “didn’t make me feel confident that I was going to be able to meet my obligations.”

Morton, a pedicurist who works in continuing care and retirement facilities, is one of nearly 12 million people now eligible to keep their unemployment benefits and also receive an extra $300 per week.

The bill also throws a lifeline to more than 4 million workers who got laid off early in the pandemic and have already received benefits for the maximum number weeks available under state and federal programs. They will be able to receive jobless pay once again for another 11 weeks.

The new benefits are part of a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill that Congress passed Monday after months of stalemate. The legislation directs the Internal Revenue Service to send $600 payments to most Americans and provides more than $300 billion for small businesses. 

But the bill has some provisions that are disadvantageous to workers. One is that the benefits will remain only until March 14, at which point the additional $300 disappears and nobody will be able to start a new claim under a federal program. Workers who already started receiving benefits can continue to do so until the week of April 5.

Republicans insisted on the gradual phaseout so that fewer people will get cut off at once, making it easier for Congress to ignore the problem when it arises. It’s a signal that Republicans will strongly resist Democratic demands to continue the benefits in a few months, despite a murky economic forecast and the ongoing pandemic. 

By backing the provision, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, Republicans are ”setting the table for economic sabotage.”

The lawmakers who negotiated the compromise legislation ignored a proposal from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to make unemployment benefits partially tax-free. Jobless workers have had to pay taxes on their benefits since the 1980s, except for a small break thanks to the 2009 Recovery Act. States are not even required to give unemployment beneficiaries the option of having the taxes withheld from federal benefits, though many states do.

In a glaring imbalance, the bill gives a huge tax cut to businesses that receive Paycheck Protection Program loans. Reversing previous IRS guidance, Congress now says firms can deduct from their taxable income the cost of payroll and other expenses that are covered by the loans, meaning they will get a tax benefit for expenses that they didn’t even have to pay themselves. The tax windfall had bipartisan support and could amount to more than $100 billion

“It’s billions for millionaires,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “The business owners are louder than the unemployed.”

The new law has a grab bag of other little unemployment changes. It requires states to make it easy for employers to rat out anyone who refuses an offer of employment, but also to notify workers of their “right to refuse work that poses a risk to the claimant’s health or safety.”

Congress also undid a requirement that states recoup the full amount of overpaid benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — the federal program for gig workers — even if the overpayment was the state’s fault. Some people owed thousands of dollars and had no way to pay. 

“That was going to be a monumental problem,” Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert with the National Employment Law Project, said in an email. 

In a tacit admission that the regular unemployment system fails to help huge numbers of workers, Congress created the PUA program as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, so that workers without traditional payroll jobs wouldn’t be left behind. 

Going forward, PUA claimants will have to provide proof of their prior income in order to receive even the minimum benefit, which Evermore described as “a little annoying” but not so bad considering states won’t be allowed to cut people off solely for failing to cough up documents. And many workers may already be meeting the requirement. 

Morton, who is 49 and lives in Chester, Va. said she already handed over tax information reflecting last year’s income to the Virginia Employment Commission, so she’s not worried about continuing to qualify for PUA benefits. As an independent contractor, she wouldn’t have qualified for unemployment compensation if it hadn’t been for the CARES Act, and she has considered herself fortunate to get the benefits.

“You can’t rely on unemployment,” Morton said. 

That’s why Morton has continued working. The only problem is that with the coronavirus surging in Virginia and the rest of the country, she can’t really do her job. Morton said that because of COVID-19 restrictions, she can only enter four of the 15 facilities that regularly hired her for foot care before the pandemic. 

People receiving unemployment benefits generally have to notify the state each week that they are still unemployed, looking for jobs, or actually working a bit. Morton said that some weeks she earns too much to receive any jobless pay, but some weeks she gets the full benefit. 

She’ll be able to count on the benefits until April, but doesn’t know if business will pick up after that. She’s scared of catching the virus, but even more scared of having to take some other job and losing her career as a pedicurist for people who have cognitive or physical disabilities, which she considers her calling. 

“That’s where that security of just having a relationship with God comes in,” she said. “When you’ve done all that you can do and there’s nothing else you can do, you have to stand on his promises.”

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