COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the country, and renewed shutdowns to manage spread of the disease have stalled the economic recovery. Emergency measures targeted at supporting working families—including expanded unemployment insurance and paid leave benefits—are scheduled to lapse at the end of December. With the crisis far from over, lawmakers must act before the end of the year to extend support and avoid a dramatic financial cliff for millions of working families.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed immense challenges for American businesses, workers, and families. The sudden decline in economic activity this spring roiled labor markets, and more than half a year later, unemployment remains elevated and labor force participation is still below pre-recession levels.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly harmful for women, who have been disproportionately impacted on two fronts: employment and caregiving. First, women-dominated industries such as retail, hospitality, and education and health services have absorbed the brunt of job losses. On top of that, the combination of school (and child care center) closures and COVID illness has resulted in unprecedented caregiving needs. A recent BPC-Morning Consult survey found that 21% of women who left their job (voluntarily or involuntarily) during the pandemic did so due to caregiving responsibilities. Moreover, the poll found that women were twice as likely as men (16% vs. 8%) to have left employment due to caregiving responsibilities specifically caused by school and child care closures.
The result is that about 2.2 million women have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic compared to 1.4 million men. Stripping away federal supports for caregivers and parents would only lead to greater, more permanent exits from the labor force.
In anticipation of the widespread labor market impacts of the pandemic, Congress dramatically increased the scope of unemployment compensation to cover millions of additional workers through two programs in the CARES Act. Congress should extend the CARES Act emergency UI programs through the end of June 2021 and provide at least an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
Under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), displaced workers who are ineligible for regular unemployment insurance (UI) can access up to 39 weeks of benefits. PUA fills in key coverage gaps for millions of workers whose ability to work is impacted by the pandemic, including those with greater caregiving responsibilities as a result of school or child care closures. This is not an insignificant population: another BPC-Morning Consult poll found that 26% of those receiving any kind of UI benefit primarily spend their time caregiving rather than actively looking for work. PUA also extends eligibility to new types of workers, including gig economy and self-employed workers typically left out of state unemployment systems.
The CARES Act also provides additional support for those collecting regular UI benefits. Most states offer 26 weeks of regular UI, but Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) offers an additional 13 weeks of federally funded eligibility to those who have exhausted their regular UI benefits, mirroring the total benefit period offered through PUA. More than 4 million long-term unemployed workers are currently collecting PEUC. The importance of this program will likely grow as long-term unemployment continues to rise and those laid off in the early months of the pandemic exhaust their regular benefits. There is precedent for this kind of long-term support: during the Great Recession, Congress extended the duration of benefits so that some displaced workers were able to collect for up to 99 weeks.
Congress should avoid a sudden drop in income for the almost 9 million caregivers and other displaced workers currently receiving PUA—about 3 million more than those collecting regular UI—and ensure ongoing support to the long-term unemployed.
Absent congressional intervention, the paid leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) will also disappear at the end of December. FFCRA provides 10 weeks of paid leave for parents affected by school or child care center closures as well as 80 hours (or 10 workdays) of COVID-related paid sick leave for workers exposed to the virus or caring for an ill family member. Importantly, this paid leave is job protected, meaning that workers who utilize it are entitled to return to their position.
While FFCRA’s paid leave benefits have critically helped many Americans balance work and family during the pandemic, only a quarter of workers are eligible for the benefits. This results from a series of exemptions, including the 48% of workers at companies with 500 or more employees, parents caring for a newborn or adopted child, and those caring for an adult dependent, including the elderly.
Congress should not only extend the emergency paid leave programs but also expand them to cover a larger portion of the workforce. Some potential solutions include:
- Extend FFCRA’s paid leave provisions through June 2021.
- Eliminate the exemption for employers with 500 or more employees—ensuring that many of the workers previously excluded can now apply for benefits.
- Expand paid leave benefits to include parents with newborn and adopted children as well as those with adult dependents.
Congress acted quickly to enact policies that provided meaningful support to working families at the start of the pandemic. At the time, however, the scope and length of the crisis facing the nation were uncertain. As cases rise and the economic recovery stalls, now is not the time to allow these emergency unemployment expansions and paid leave benefits to expire.