Dem Senators Propose New Standards to Permanently Increase Unemployment Benefits

Two Democratic senators are introducing legislation to standardize federal unemployment insurance benefits, and to ensure extra benefits are added during times when unemployment is high across the country.

The bill proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) would require states to pay at least 75 percent of a claimant’s previous weekly wage up to the state’s maximum benefit rate. The proposal would also raise unemployment benefits to match that of at least two-thirds of the weekly amount the average worker in the state earns.

Such a move would raise unemployment insurance benefits in a number of areas. In at least 13 states across the country, the average weekly benefit for unemployment is below the 2020 poverty line measure.

The bill would likely close a benefits gap seen between states across the U.S. The maximum benefit allotted to unemployed workers in the country is currently in Massachusetts, where an individual without dependents can receive up to $823 per week if they suddenly find themselves without work. In Mississippi, the maximum benefit is just $235.

The legislation the two Democrats are proposing would require states to also provide at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Most states are already at that standard, but a handful do not guarantee that those without work can receive benefits for that long.

Wyden’s and Bennet’s bill would also ensure that the unemployment system would provide extra benefits during economic crises, when the unemployment rate is higher than usual — such as what was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic or during the Great Recession. The current boost to unemployment insurance, which adds $300 to weekly checks sent to out-of-work Americans, is set to expire in September.

Under this bill, when the unemployment rate reaches 5.5 percent, benefits would extend from the required 26 weeks to an additional 13 weeks, for a total of 39 weeks.

“As we’ve seen the last year, it’s much harder for the unemployment system to work in a crisis when it’s been neglected and sabotaged. We can’t fail again to fix it in the wake of the second major economic crisis in 10 years,” Wyden said to HuffPost about his and Bennet’s proposal.

In addition to these new standards, the bill would also ensure that workers in the so-called “gig economy” would be covered, allowing workers who are freelancers or those who drive for ride-share companies would also receive a benefit.

The last monthly jobs report found that 6 percent of the population is currently classified as unemployed. Long-term unemployment since the start of the pandemic also remains high. Those who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks represent 43.4 percent of all individuals who are currently without work.

It’s unclear whether the proposal could be passed through Congress at this time. While there would likely be support for its passage in the Democrat-led House, in the Senate, more evenly divided at 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, the bill would likely face the threat of being blocked by a filibuster.

It’s possible, however, that if the Democratic caucus in the Senate gets behind this proposal, that the bill could be included as an amendment to the recently passed stimulus package, allowing it to go through the reconciliation process and thus bypassing the filibuster entirely, to ensure more Americans who are without work can receive unemployment insurance.