Monday, April 14, 2014

The Federal Unemployment Benefits Extension

Well here we are, April 14, 2014 and still no closer to getting an extended unemployment benefits bill passed than we were at the beginning of January. Yes, a bill has fortunately passed the Senate, yet it sits in the House where who knows what will happen. It is interesting in this span of time to read opinions and editorials printed in the media regarding whether extending unemployment is good or bad for our economy. Sadly to the uneducated on the topic the articles against an extension seem rather compelling.

All of the articles I have read that take an anti-extension stance cite several factors why an extension is bad:

1. They all pin their articles around North Carolina and how unemployment has dropped dramatically since they cut the time allowed to collect. I have lived in and remain friends with many people in North Carolina and I can tell you first hand that this bill has not helped. In fact it has hurt. Yes, unemployment dropped. But that number dropped because each week a new group of people have their benefits expire. North Carolina bases their job growth numbers that are conveyed to the public by the number of people who stopped collecting unemployment. So for example, when you hear on the news down there that 1000 new jobs were created this month, the real truth is that 900 people had their unemployment cut off and can no longer collect. The other 100 were actual jobs "created". But these jobs were not new, they are just the average turnover rate of jobs and people moving from one job and a new opening being created in their old position.

2. That giving benefits for 99 weeks or whatever causes people to sit on their butts and do nothing. Folks, this is an even bigger misconception that is portrayed to our public. While technically it would be possible to collect for such a period, and I am sure that people have, the chances of collecting for that long are so remote for the people who actually want to get a job. In addition, the length of the extension is tied DIRECTLY to the unemployment rate of each state. So as the rate of unemployment drops in a particular state, the length of the extension time drops in relation.

3. These people collecting unemployment are no good, lazy individuals and unless we cut unemployment they will never be productive citizens of society again. FALSE! While I will not argue that there are probably a very small majority of unemployed individuals that do take advantage of the system, our government should not focus their solution on the small majority.

4. Unemployment is a windfall of money to these people. FALSE! First, and foremost, not everyone that is on unemployment collects the same amount and often times even the same individual may not collect the same amount of each week. So just because Sally gets $400 each week does not mean Joe gets $400. In fact, Joe may only get $100. The amount collected each week is based on a series of computations taking into account the amount the person contributed to the pot. This is based on the number of hours you worked and your wages. The more you contribute the more you get.

5. The unemployed should take any job presented to them. This is TRUE but only to some extent. While taking a job keeps an individual from having to collect unemployment and saves money it is not a true solution and often times is not the right solution. Let's just say that the average, hardworking individual who has worked for 20+ years at the same job is now suddenly laid off. During the course of their career they worked at least 40 hours a week and earned an average salary of $60,000. Let's say they have a wife and two kids and live very modestly in an average home, drive one vehicle, send their kids to public schools, and do not take enjoy any extravagant vacations or other luxuries, yet they are happy. We will call them John and Mary. Mary is disabled and unable to work. John is the sole breadwinner and they enjoy their lives together. Now John gets laid off. So now what?

Well, while John was working they built up a little savings and retirement account to support them in the future so they have that, but John they are young and John is eager to get back to work. While John was working, and after taxes and other deductions such as medical and 401K, he was collecting about $800 each week (that is what you would earn approximately if your salary was $60,000 assuming normal deductions/tax rates). So John starts looking for a job immediately. Here is how that plays out:

1. Month one (4 weeks) - John focuses his job search entirely on jobs with the same duties/requirements as his previous one. He gets several bites and goes on several interviews. But does not hear back with an official yes/no.

2. Month two (8 weeks have passed now) - John is now broadening his scope of jobs and searching not only within his field, but also other jobs that he may or may not be qualified for. As expected the broadening of scope results in fewer interviews as automated HR systems do detect similarities like a human may (a sad an unfortunate result of poorly implemented technology in the workplace). Yet he still manages to go on a couple interviews and even gets called back for a second interview from one of the jobs he applied to in week one.

3. Month three (12 weeks have passed now) - Things are getting desperate. John and Mary are starting to take a significant bite into their savings and to this point have held off from applying for unemployment. They decide that with the uncertainty facing them that John should apply and he is immediately granted a $400 week unemployment check. But when he gets his first check he is surprised that it is only for about $300. What happened he wonders... OH, taxes. Damn that was a surprise. Hey but any amount is better than no amount so he hits the streets again looking for a new job. At this point his scope has broadened enough that he is starting to explore jobs in industries he may not have thought he qualified for. The interviews pick up a bit, but still no job.

4. Month four (16 weeks have passed now and John has been collecting unemployment for 8 of them) - Things are desperate. The $300 unemployment check is helpful, but not quite getting them where they need to be. John has taken up a part-time job at a local restaurant washing dishes that pays $8 hour. He works on average of 20 hours a week and receives about $120 (after taxes) each week in his paycheck. BUT this job has created a new problem for John and Mary. See when John started working part-time his unemployment benefits were cut (this is the law folks). So instead of receiving $300 post tax dollars in his unemployment check he now receives only $100 post tax dollars. And now instead of collecting $300 each week from unemployment, he is working (although only part-time at this point) and making  only $220 a week. What John thought was a good idea at the time by becoming a somewhat productive member of society has not helped his family, but instead ended up hurting them.

5. Month five (20 weeks have passed and John has been collecting unemployment for 12 of them) - John is still working part-time and still only making $220 with his wages and unemployment. John has decided that he can work two part-time jobs at different restaurants and make more than he has been by being on unemployment. So he starts at another restaurant washing dishes and making $8 an hour. He is now working 40 hours a week between both jobs and making $240 between them after taxes. His unemployment is cut because he is making too much money to be eligible.

So far you may think that for the most part John and Mary have been reasonably responsible in their thinking and actions. But just wait!

6. Month six (24 weeks have passed and John is no longer collecting unemployment) - John is no longer needed at the first restaurant he started working at. He starts looking for another part-time job to replace that position. Him and Mary are considering moving to another city to look for work and John begins the search for cities by scoping out the job market. Being young they are open to moving wherever. As John looks for another part-time job and starts sending out resumes to several other companies in various cities, he continues to work his one part-time job making $120 a week washing dishes. He reapplies for unemployment and starts receiving $100 a week again from that to supplement his families income. With Mary's health issues and other expenses their savings has all but evaporated and any bit of income is better than none.

7. Month seven (28 weeks have passed and John has now been on unemployment for 16 weeks) - WAIT a minute? John hasn't been on unemployment 16 weeks, he has only been on unemployment for 4 weeks now. You idiot remember he just started filing for unemployment last month. NOPE, that is not how the system works folks. See John had not worked enough and not a long enough period of time had passed since he had opened his original unemployment claim so when he started collecting again, he fell into the original claim, meaning he picks up where he left off. For John to start a new claim a year would have had to pass and John would have had to work a set number of hours and earned a set number of wages before he was eligible to open a new claim. In the meantime he is still collecting from his original claim.

8. Month eight (32 weeks have passed and John has been on unemployment for 20 weeks now) - John is back working two part-time jobs and has been on several interviews in other states/cities for potential jobs. Working two jobs and travelling for interviews has taken its toll on his family life, but him and Mary are more than determined to make things work. Things are looking up for them as more interviews and the potential of moving to a new city with a new job seems positive. Unfortunately by working two jobs like John is he is no longer eligible for unemployment and his wages have dropped to a total of about $250 each week. A far cry from the $600 his family was used to at one time, but nonetheless they are dead set on continuing to be productive members of society as some would call them by having a job and contributing to the workforce.

9. Month nine (36 weeks have passed since John was laid off) - John has several opportunities that seem very promising and him and Mary are hoping something comes through on one of them. Their savings has been depleted entirely and they are relying on John's three part-time jobs (he got another one to help make ends meet) now to cover their expenses. They cancelled their health insurance and are now relying entirely on Medicaid and other state run benefits for Mary's doctor's appointments and medications. They have started to collect foodstamps to supplement their grocery bills. They continue to pay their mortgage and car payments, but have cut off all other unnecessary expenditures. John is using a prepaid cell phone as their only means of communications and visits the local library daily to search for jobs on the Internet. They have sold some of their belongings and the kids are facing increased bullying at school as word gets out they are struggling in the community.

10. Month ten (40 weeks have passed since John was laid off) - John has two offers for jobs in different cities. Him and Mary have begun evaluating which is the better offer and comparing the costs associated with moving to both cities. Both moves require a significant move across the country and both companies have offered to subsidize some of those costs. The put the gears in motion to sell their house they have lived in for 20 years and price it for what the realtor tells them will be a "quick sale at that price". John takes one of the jobs for a salary of $45000 ($15,000 less than what he was making at his old job) and they start working with the company to determine where they will live when they get there. John and Mary fly out to look at apartments, homes, schools for the kids, and the other typical things a family on the move would look for. They find that renting an apartment will be slightly more than their current mortgage payment, but the prices of homes is astronomical and the proceeds from the sale of their old home combined with the reduced income make purchasing seem a distant dream.

11. Month eleven (44 weeks have passed since John was laid off) - John is scheduled to start his new job in two weeks. Their current house has not sold and no offers have even been put on the table. They remain optimistic about the situation though. They have started packing and the moving company will be here in a couple days to start hauling their stuff across the country. John is still working three part-time jobs to help with the expenses but is planning to quit in a week to give him and Mary some time to get the last of the details in order with the kids and the move.

12. Month twelve (a total of 52 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off and he collected unemployment for 20 weeks) - The move is successful, but they still have not sold their original home and with money being tight they have lowered the asking price a bit in hopes of drawing a bidding war to bring it back up to what they had anticipated. The kids are settled in their new school, John has started his new job and is happy, and they are on an employer healthcare plan. Things are looking bright again for the family. Now if they could just sell their house. In the meantime they have signed a 6 month lease for a small apartment and plan to buy a home when they sell their house.

13. Month thirteen (a total of 56 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off) - The job is going great, but unfortunately the bidding war they envisioned has not materialized. On a bright note, they did receive an offer for their house but for $5000 less than what they were asking. They decide, as they have in the past, that some money is better than no money and waiting any longer will only hurt them in the future. They accept the offer and closing is in 30 days.

14. Month fourteen (a total of 60 weeks has now passed since John was originally laid off and he has been at his new job for 8 weeks) - They have closed on their old house and start seriously looking for new homes they can afford. Since they sold their old home for much less than they anticipated the range of homes they can afford has diminished greatly, but they remain optimistic. John is enjoying his new job and things are going good otherwise.

15. Month fifteen (a total of 64 weeks have now passed since John was originally laid off and he has been at his new job for 12 weeks) - Things are going good, the house search however is not seeming to pan out and they decide to extend their current lease for 6 more months in hopes things will improve a little. John is bringing home about $600 a week (about 25% less than he was in his previous job), but some money is better than no money.

16. Month sixteen (a total of 68 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off) - John's company makes a big announcement. They have been acquired by a competitor. Uncertainty faces all employees as talks of what will happen now. The company assures the workers they are safe and will continue to have jobs after the acquisition.

17. Month seventeen (a total of 72 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off) - The acquisition of John's company is moving forward and things are still looking bright for him, Mary and the kids. They are still renting their apartment and continue to search for new homes.

18. Month eighteen (a total of 76 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off and he has been in his new job for 24 weeks now - almost 6 months) - John and Mary find a house and the mortgage payment will be slightly less than their current rent. They decide that for economical reasons it would be better to put an offer in and go for it. They still have some money left from the sale of their old home and will utilize that for a significant down payment that will help reduce their mortgage.

19. Month nineteen (a total of 80 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off and he has been in his new job for 28 weeks) - They have purchased a new home and will be moving in a few weeks. Their landlord has agreed to let them out of their existing lease with no fees which is good news. The acquisition of John's company is moving forward and the new company is starting to take over operations slowly.

20. Month twenty (a total of 84 weeks have passed since John was originally laid off and he has been in his new job for 32 weeks) - John and Mary have moved into their new home and they are very happy. John gets some discouraging news though at work. The new owners have announced they will be "reorganizing" the company to improve efficiency and they will be consolidating the operations. John is told that his unit will be relocated to another city. BUT, he has a job waiting for him when they move. He has some decisions to make.

21. Month twenty-one (a total of 88 weeks have passed and John has been at work for 36 weeks in his new job) - John is still undecided about moving. He considers travelling between cities on a weekly basis for a bit to see how things pan out and if it looks good moving the whole family once he is settled in and has had time to scope things out. Mary is not so eager about this idea, but is willing to accept it to make ends meet and so John is not facing unemployment again.

22. Month twenty-two (a total of 92 weeks have passed and John has been at his new job for 40 weeks) - John is commuting between cities. He leaves on Sunday nights, stays in a hotel during the week and comes home Friday afternoon to spend weekends with the family. Not the optimal solution, or what he had envisioned, but nonetheless, some money is better than no money. Unfortunately, the constant travel is costing him significant bit of savings so he decides to rent an apartment instead of staying in hotels. John's company offers to throw in a little money to help cover the costs, but it is not the whole dollar amount it will cost. Nonetheless, John rents the apartment. He is still making about $600 a week though. His rent on his new apartment and their mortgage is $2000 a month and his company subsidizes $500 of that for him bringing his rent costs to $1500 plus utilities.

23. Month twenty-three (a total of 96 weeks have passed now and John has been working for the same company 44 weeks - almost a year now) - John is earning approximately $2400 a month in wages, pays $1500 a month in rent/mortgage, $300 a month for utilities, $100 a month for gas for his car, and about $400 for other expenses (i.e groceries, insurance, etc..). Him and Mary are extremely frugal with their expenses and are managing to save about $100 a month. Not a lot but better than nothing.

24. Month twenty-four (a total of 100 weeks have passed now and John has been working for 48 weeks) - Expenses are tight and John and Mary are planning to consolidate to the new city. They put their house on the market and begin planning the move. Their house sells fairly quick this time and the little bump from the equity they had helps their savings a bit. Still not where they were, but better than their current situation. Mary and the kids move to the new city.

So why did I drag this out so long if it all works out in the end for them. Because this is unfortunately house situations play out daily in this country. It took our example family of John and Mary nearly 100 weeks to get back on their feet comfortably. While they may have been able to do some things differently along the way, unfortunately it is easy to Monday morning quarterback when you are not faced with the exact situations at that moment. For the most part I would consider this example family a very good example of doing things for the most part to not "burden" society by collecting unnecessary benefits and living within their means. But the fact of the matter is that there were several scenarios that could have been devastating for the family. If John had not been able to find part-time work as quickly, if his unemployment claim had expired and he was no longer able to collect unemployment until he had worked a given amount of hours or earned a given amount, etc.. These are the parts of unemployment that the media continually fail to address when supporting an end to unemployment benefits.

I will not sit here and tell you that extending unemployment indefinitely is the right solution, because I truly do not believe that it is. But what I will tell you is that there is much more that needs to be changed before our elected officials go cutting off bits and pieces to serve their needs. For example:

1. Any bill passed by either the House or Senate should automatically be entitled to and receive a vote by the other group. The problem we are seeing here, not only with the unemployment bill, is that many bills (both good or bad depending on who you are and your views) get pushed through a majority vote and fail to move forward. Who knows, maybe one of the job bills that the House has passed and that sits in the Senate could change the lives of millions and help our economy. Last I checked the US was a democracy and we spend billions of dollars fighting for other countries to embrace democracy, yet when it comes to our own politicians we somehow forget about democracy. The majority leaders and senior leadership for both the Senate and House have somehow gotten it into their heads that THEY ALONE control what is good or bad for the people. If a bill doesn't pass than so be it, at least everyone knows it got a fair chance to be presented to the people.

And don't tell me they don't have time to take up every bill passed by either group. That is a false statement as well. Our elected politicians have spent less days working this year in DC than I have worked since last June and guess what, I am unemployed! Needless trips "home" or vacations, or long weekends, or whatever else the excuse is, are no longer acceptable. There are hundreds of problems facing the US economy today and these individuals are elected to solve or attempt to solve those problems for us. These individuals are paid significant salaries and given benefits that you and I can only dream of, yet somehow they get two weeks off for Easter and go to "recess".

2. Change the way unemployment data is delivered to the public. In its current state when we here of unemployment rates it is a very one-sided story. This number is based entirely on the number of people who filed for and/or collected unemployment benefits during the period. Unfortunately it does not take into account the unemployed whose benefits have expired. And only recently has that true number been circulating in the media and only because of the spotlight put on it by the failure to extend unemployment.

3. Change the way unemployment claims are filed. More data should be taken into consideration when basing amounts of unemployment payments rather than amount of time worked and wages earned during that period. In John's case, and what causes such a stir, he took a significant reduction in pay and eligible benefits to avoid having to collect unemployment in the first place. In the current unemployment system he could have legally turned down any part-time work to collect full unemployment as being a "non-comparable position".  Instead he chose to work part-time and not collect unemployment at a great financial burden to his family. More people on unemployment would probably take John's position, if there was a consideration of sorts for taking a part-time low paying job while collecting unemployment. I know personally for example that in my state if I earned over $200 a week in wages I would no longer be eligible for unemployment benefits. While the flip side of this is that we don't want people "double dipping" and earning a significant wage through a "non-comparable position" AND collecting unemployment, there has to be a line that can be drawn somewhere besides wages earned. An example would be to say that if your wages and unemployment are greater than 75% of your previous wage than you can no longer collect or something along that line.

4. Trying to change one piece to solve a much larger problem is an ongoing problem with our government. Every law we seem to pass is a response to a problem and not a prevention of a problem. We need to start focusing on preventing the problems. Instead, by responding we lose focus on what the end goal ultimately was.

No comments:

Post a Comment