Hannah Halbert: Wrong move to end supplemental unemployment compensation

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 17, 2021

The federal response to COVID-19 demonstrated the power of government to tackle big problems and improve people’s lives.

By significantly increasing unemployment payments to people who had been laid off or had to stop working to protect their health, the government averted crisis for millions of families.

Federal action made sure families still had money to spend on groceries, pay the rent and keep the lights on. After a painful recovery from the Great Recession, federal policymakers learned that rapid, substantial and sustained unemployment payments can help rebuild the economy so it includes all of us. Gov. DeWine’s announcement Thursday shows that Ohio lawmakers weren’t paying attention.

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We are far from recovered from the COVID-19 recession. Ohio has 295,000 fewer jobs than the 5.6 million we had in February of 2020. The $300 benefit has been a lifeline for Ohioans, putting money in their pockets so they could keep the economy afloat, even as many businesses temporarily closed down or slowed operations.

The best way for employers to attract new workers is to pay a good wage and offer decent benefits. State unemployment data show Ohioans re-enter the workforce when decent jobs are available. In the last quarter of 2020, the vast majority of unemployed Ohioans — about 80 percent — returned to work before exhausting their unemployment benefits. Only three unemployment programs have a better rate. Further, large-scale studies show that the more substantial $600 benefit did not keep people from going back to work. The public policy response to boosting labor force participation should not be to make people so poor and so desperate that they’ll accept any job, even if it pays so little that they’re living in poverty, or putting their safety at risk.

Recovery from the pandemic recession must include everyone, not just the wealthy few and corporations. Women, especially Black and brown women, have shouldered much of the economic fallout from the pandemic. They are disproportionately represented in care and service jobs and depend on child care to be able to work themselves. Yet as the end of the school year approaches, many child care centers have not re-opened. Pulling this supplement will put more women and their kids further behind.

People still waiting for child care to become available, those in communities with low vaccination rates and people who live in communities where jobs are still scarce and still need support.

Pulling the UC supplement ignores the challenges thousands of Ohioans still face.

— Hannah Halbert is executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit, progressive thinktank. Their website is www.policymattersohio.org.