March 25,2020

Press Contact:

Ashley Schapitl (202) 224-4515

Wyden Responds to GOP Opposition to Supercharging Unemployment Insurance: An Extra $600 Per Week for Laid Off Workers Will Not End Western Civilization

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr. President, several Senators on the other side have been arguing against the provision in this bill to supercharge unemployment insurance right now, something Senate Democrats negotiated with the Trump administration, Secretary Mnuchin and Chairman Grassley. Based on what I’m hearing from Senators on the other side, you’d think this proposal was going to bring on the end of Western Civilization.

Supercharged unemployment benefits was something Senate Democrats have been fighting for since this process began. It is the key to getting help to where it’s needed most as this crisis develops. And believe me colleagues, when you see the unemployment claim numbers tomorrow, if the estimates are accurate, everybody’s going to see that this crisis is exploding.

I don’t believe anybody in America should fall into destitution as a result of this pandemic, so I obviously disagree with my colleagues who oppose our agreement to improve unemployment benefits. I want to make just a few key points in response to their argument.

First, let me start with one argument that just about knocked the wind out of me when I heard it earlier today. It’s the idea that nurses are going to quit their jobs as a result of this legislation. Nurses will not be quitting their jobs to get unemployment benefits. That’s not how unemployment insurance works. It’s not how nurses think when they get up in the morning.

By now, everybody has seen the herculean efforts of our nurses fighting this pandemic. Nurses in America are brave, they are caring and they are professionals. From Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, they are on the front lines of this fight putting themselves in harm’s way to save lives. They do not cut and run. In contrary to the suggestion of my colleague from Nebraska, retired nurses have been coming out of retirement in droves to help treat patients suffering because of coronavirus. 

Second, it’s a head-scratcher to me that Senator Sasse is raising this objection now. I learned about his objection when I watched his press conference, and I called him about it. This proposal has been out in public for days. Senators have known about it that whole time. It is not a last-minute surprise. It is not a “drafting error.”  What Senator Sasse wants dropped now, in fact, was part of the bill the Republican leader introduced on Saturday night because Democrats insisted on it being a part of this package, and as Secretary Mnuchin said this afternoon, Republicans agreed. More on that in a minute.

Third, let’s talk about why it’s needed – why my Democratic colleagues and I worked so hard to help the millions hit by this economic wrecking ball. For most people, the old unemployment rules would cover only a third to half of their lost wages – that’s it. That doesn’t pay the rent and put food on the table.

Even before this crisis, the Federal Reserve found that nearly half of Americans wouldn’t have been able to come up with $400 cash to cover costs in an emergency.

So let’s face it, most Americans are already walking on an economic tightrope – and that’s before this pandemic. That’s why an improved, supercharged unemployment benefit is needed to replace people’s lost wages. They shouldn’t face a choice between homelessness, hunger or bankruptcy because a virus has shut down our economy and lost them their job. This isn’t anybody’s fault.

And while the consumer economy is shuttered, the Congress has a responsibility to make sure that people are able to bounce back in a matter of weeks or months. Otherwise, millions of people will struggle slowly to recover from this economic crisis and many will not make it if the Senate does not help them now. The panic people feel over the virus is already too much – the least we can do as lawmakers is to have their backs when it comes to surviving this economic crisis.

We’re now on the third bill in the fight against the coronavirus. Mitch McConnell’s first version of this bill did virtually nothing for people who are losing their jobs. Virtually nothing. Out of 247 pages, it had only eight lines of text – not eight pages, eight lines – and those eight lines only dealt with filing for unemployment online. There was a lot of corporate goodies. Lots of slush fund bailouts for the big corporations. Virtually nothing for people losing their jobs.

Democrats fought for – and won – changes that make up this robust, expanded unemployment insurance based on a bill that Senator Peters and I introduced not long ago. First, in these punishing economic times, Americans are going to need more weeks of coverage than they’d otherwise get from UI. The existing length of unemployment benefits will not cover the time that this crisis will last.

Second, the Senate needed to modernize the UI program, which has not changed much since it was developed in Wisconsin in 1932. It wasn’t built to take on the kind of challenge the country is facing right now. My Democratic colleagues and I looked at the system and said it wasn’t going to be good enough for independent contractors, the self-employed, gig workers, part-time workers and freelancers. For people who still have their jobs but have their hours slashed. For people in the service economy – restaurants, salons, gyms, you name it – which has essentially been put on pause across the country.

You’re talking about millions and millions of Americans – people who are looking at hard times ahead, and they need our help right away. The old UI system wasn’t working, so Senate Democrats worked hard to fix it.

Now let me address why this agreement raises benefits specifically by $600 per week. Because I know my colleagues have objected to that amount. It does so, because Secretary Scalia, after meeting with Senate negotiators, left us with no other way to get benefits to workers quickly. He said the states had no other way to get the benefits to workers in time.

We needed a simple solution, and you don’t have to believe me. I’m going to share the words of Secretary Mnuchin himself. Just today, he said, quote, “Most of these state systems have technology that is 30 years old or older. If we had the ability to customize this with much more specifics, we would have. This was the only way we could ensure states could get the money out quickly and in a fair way so we used $600 across the board. I don't think it will create incentives, most Americans want what they want: they want to keep their jobs.”

That’s why negotiators came to an agreement to increase benefits by $600. The math shows that a standard payment of $600 is the simplest way to get to full wage replacement without causing an administrative train wreck.

So I’ll close on this. I’m sure that everybody here read that unemployment claims are expected to go up by 2.5 million in one week when the statistics are released tomorrow. Two point five million. That’s almost as many jobs were lost in the entire year of 2008, when the Great Recession was hitting this country like a wrecking ball. It is the single largest rise in unemployment since it started being tracked.

Twelve entire months’ worth of Great Recession job losses – that’s how many unemployment claims economists expect to see in a single week. This country has never faced anything like this. It’s not a normal recession. This isn’t a normal stimulus bill, in which the government tries to give the economy a shot of fiscal adrenaline. This is a shutdown of entire sectors of our economy. What the Congress needs to do is keep our economy alive. We’re not going to do that by shortchanging workers who are losing jobs or losing hours or losing gigs.

Americans want to work. Businesses want to keep their employees on the job. Everybody wants the economy to spring back to life once this pandemic is under control. That’s what supercharging unemployment benefits is all about.

So here’s the bottom line on supercharging unemployment insurance. This isn’t new. It’s not a “drafting error.” It’s not going to bring on the end of Western Civilization.

This is how you keep millions and millions of Americans from falling into destitution.