The summer 2021 unemployment situation

Several folks have forwarded to me different articles that describe the current unemployment situation.

An article in Dissent establishes that the current attack on pandemic unemployment programs is mostly just another kind of attack on working folk.

Across the country, workers have used the health and safety concerns posed by the pandemic and the enhanced unemployment insurance provided by the CARES Act to renegotiate the basic social contract that governs the American workplace. As social-distancing restrictions end and employers look to meet customer demand, pandemic unemployment benefits—which increase the amount in weekly income and the length of time that workers can claim it—have empowered working people across the economy.

Nationally, wages at the bottom of the labor market experienced a huge jump in April 2020 and continued to rise. Average hourly earnings in retail are up a dollar since May 2020, and over $1.50 since before the pandemic. In education, hourly earnings are up ninety cents since May 2020. As one indication of confidence in individual bargaining, workers are quitting at a historically high rate. Four million workers, nearly 3 percent of the labor force, voluntarily left employment in April. Workers who quit are not eligible for unemployment insurance: they are changing jobs to look for better pay and treatment.

The Biden administration has professed a commitment to creating a bargaining environment more favorable to workers. “It is the policy of my Administration to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining,” the president wrote in his April Executive Order on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which established a cabinet-level task force to promote those goals. The purpose of the order is to determine how the administration can begin to reverse the decline in union membership, to which the White House attributes “serious societal and economic problems in our country,” including “widespread and deep economic inequality, stagnant real wages, and the shrinking of America’s middle class.”

These goals are running aground in the face of a now ubiquitous talking point: according to the nation’s business press and cable news channels, a “labor shortage” created by workers’ increased bargaining power is holding back growth of the post-pandemic economy.

In Wisconsin, wages have not actually increased all that much during the pandemic, especially in sectors where pandemic job losses were greatest — hospitality and leisure — where a huge jobs hole has been created: “More than half of the private sector jobs lost in Wisconsin in 2020 were in the Leisure and Hospitality Sector, over 60,000 in all, which left us with nearly 22% fewer Leisure and Hospitality jobs than there were in December 2019. “

On the other hand, jake reports, “one sizable industry was nearly back to even in Wisconsin by the end of the year, and both managerial and manufacturing jobs lost a lower rate of jobs than the statewide level of 4.8%.”

Job change, Dec 2019-Dec 2020, Wisconsin
Construction -0.02% (-32 jobs)
Financial Activities -1.0% (-1,539)
Prof./Business Services -2.5% (-8,030)
Manufacturing -4.0% (-19,311)

And, Jake explains, many people are actually not receiving unemployment at all but moving on to “better” jobs on their own.

It’s pretty obvious what is happening here. Many people who lost their jobs as COVID broke out had to settle for other work, and I have to think that they and a lot of others have questioned the point of settling for menial jobs that don’t pay much, and put them in contact with large amounts of people that may not be vaccinated against a virus that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans.

So when they get a chance to move on for something that is safer and/or pays better and treats them better, they’re taking it. It just hurts the fee-fees of greedy, mediocre business owners that people are taking what they have (don’t) have to offer.

Jake’s look at the 2020 economic numbers reveals that Wisconsin has actually lagged the rest of the nation:

I also wanted to give you a look at how Wisconsin shaped up compared to the rest of the US in personal income. This number went up across the board in the US despite the COVID recession because of thousands of dollars in stimulus payments, enhanced unemployment benefits, and PPP bailouts. But Wisconsin didn’t have nearly the boost that most places had, with our income growth of 4.4% putting us down at 46th in the country.

We trailed in all three areas, particularly in those transfer receipts, which may reflect that we had fewer people collecting those higher unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and PPP funds. But we also trailed in earnings (Wis down 0.3%, US was up 0.3%), and lagging in wage and earnings growth has continued to be a worrying trend in the last decade in Wisconsin.

So, the problem in Wisconsin is not too much support for unemployment but too little. What worries current legislative leaders, apparently, is that even this minimal support is still too much. In These Times features the situation in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, the legislature has voted to reinstate work search requirements for people receiving unemployment insurance, and declined Governor Evers’ proposal to add $15 million to the state’s unemployment system, as well as a proposal to add $28 million to worker training programs. Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have made moves to eliminate the $300 supplement from the federal government for UI.

[Gov. Evers says he disagrees with these actions but has not promised to veto the rollback of these pandemic unemployment programs. The evidence of these programs, however, . . . ]

“Unemployment rates in Wisconsin don’t support the overdrawn and quite dramatic, self serving conclusion that there are a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines who are ready to go to go to work in otherwise low wage, no benefit, insecure, crappy jobs if $300 a week, supplemental unemployment benefits were eliminated,” said Peter Rickman, president of MASH. At the same time, Rickman sees the current economic landscape as an opportunity for workers. ​“The way the labor market is constructed right now is such that the balance of power instead of being wholly and entirely in favor of the boss class, has had a slight tipping towards the working class,” he said.

Senator Melissa Agard (D‑16th District) argues that cutting UI won’t put people back to work as much as it would harm struggling families. ​“It’s really unfortunate that my Republican colleagues in Wisconsin are continuing down the same path that they were on pre-pandemic: making it harder for people to be able to get ahead and take care of themselves and their families,” Agard told In These Times. ​“Folks are having a hard time finding people for jobs primarily because they’re not paying people a living wage, or respectable wage to do those jobs.”

One final point to keep in mind is that Wisconsin’s unemployment system has a partial wage formula (not offered in most states) that means unemployment and work are NOT mutually exclusive. Many unemployed folk can and do work part-time while still receiving unemployment benefits.

2 thoughts on “The summer 2021 unemployment situation

  1. Thanks for the props and the added info. I just took a gander at the May jobs numbers for Wisconsin, and they continue to show things going in the right direction, both on the jobs and increased labor force areas.

    But it also shows that we are still well below where we were in May 2020, and there’s a serious friction in between what employers think they need and what they think they have to pay for jobs, and what workers are available, and what they’ll take. And it’s in no small part because employers cut back so much in 2020.

    • Sorry, that is meant to say “well below where we were in February 2020”. Which is the month before COVID started to hit the jobs numbers here.

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