Like just about every freelance writer I know, my income has become a lot more precarious in the last few weeks as coronavirus precautions have shut down the economy. Outlets have shuttered, freelance budgets have been slashed, and the future looks frankly terrifying.
But I was glad to hear that the government had opened up unemployment benefits to the self-employed as part of the CARES stimulus package. So I logged on to the Illinois website to figure out what to do if the worst happened and I ran out of work. I clicked once, clicked twice, and came to a page with clear instructions. "This portion of the benefits expansion package has not yet been implemented." In other words, Illinois is working on it, but it will be weeks before self-employed workers can apply for aid.
The truth is we don't know how many people need economic aid during the pandemic. We only know we're not doing enough to help them.
I'm not alone: Rafael Espinal, president of the Freelancers Union, told me "we have yet to hear a success story from a freelancer" trying to get unemployment benefits. And freelancers are far from the only unemployed or underemployed people having trouble getting relief. U.S. unemployment claims have skyrocketed, but even those numbers are undercounting. The truth is we don't know how many people need economic aid during the pandemic. We only know we're not doing enough to help them.
Weekly unemployment jobs claims have hit record highs after record highs in the last weeks. On March 26, 3.3 million claims were announced for the previous week, the most in history to that point. On April 2, claims jumped to 6.6 million. On April 9, new claims again exceeded 6 million, and on Thursday more than 5 million claims were announced, bringing the four-week total to almost 22 million.
The huge number of claims has overwhelmed unemployment bureaucracies and technology, according to Heidi Shierholz, the senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.
"We've massively underinvested in these systems for decades," Shierholz told me. "So it's not surprising that they're unable to deal with a 2,000 percent increase in claims."
Florida, for example, knew its unemployment website was inadequate even before the pandemic. Colorado and other states have been unable to update their websites because they are written in COBOL, an obsolete programming language. When people can't log in to file claims, they can't get help to pay for food or rent. They also aren't counted in weekly figures.
There are whole categories of people who may be out of work but are unable to access unemployment benefits. Chief among these are the nation's estimated 23 million gig workers. Usually gig workers can't file for unemployment insurance. Congress changes that in the CARES stimulus package. But it took the federal government another week after passage, till April 5, to issue guidelines. And states are still struggling to set up systems to allow the self-employed to file for unemployment insurance under Congress' new rules.
One group especially affected by the barriers for gig workers are disabled people, according to disability rights activist and attorney Matthew Cortland. Cortland said disabled people face pervasive discrimination from employers even in good times, and are therefore especially likely to be self-employed or work at jobs where they have more control over their hours. "Unemployment figures aren't going to capture all of the disabled folks who were using an Etsy store or table at the farmers market to make ends meet," Cortland told me. "We're simply not captured in the unemployment data."
Other groups not counted in unemployment figures include people who had to quit work to care for children because of school shutdowns, notes Shierholz. Neither are people who became ill and had to leave jobs without sick leave policies. People who finish school and are trying to enter the workforce aren't counted either. (And that's a group that will expand significantly over the next months or so as college and high school students graduate.)
Yet another important group who are left out are the United States' 8 million undocumented immigrants. Exempting undocumented people from unemployment benefits is cruel in itself. But it's also terrible policy. Without benefits, immigrants have no choice but to try to continue working even if they are sick or could spread the virus. "It's a ridiculous thing to do from a public health perspective," Shierholz says.
Unemployment claims aside, we'll have a somewhat clearer sense of the extent of unemployment when the next jobs report comes out on May 8, reporting the result of household and business surveys. Experts think the unemployment rate right now could be as high as 15 percent. The worst rate during the Great Recession was around 10 percent. Some worry we may hit 30 percent before the crisis is over.
These are shattering numbers, and they mean that the U.S. needs to do much more to help people who have lost work. The federal government has added $600 a week to existing state unemployment benefits for four months. That needs to be extended to run as long as the economy is in crisis, Shierholz says.
Experts think the unemployment rate right now could be as high as 15 percent. The worst rate during the Great Recession was around 10 percent.
She also told me that the government needs to provide much more aid to states. One easy way to do that, she suggests, is for the federal government to take over state Medicaid payments. If aid is not forthcoming, balanced budget requirements will force states to balance coronavirus spending with other drastic cuts. That will become "an anti-stimulus machine, and a huge drag on the economy," Shierholz says.
Cortland, the disability activist, also told me that using unemployment insurance to fight the crisis is not adequate. If we are going to center our response on unemployment insurance payments, he said, we desperately need to find better ways of making sure those payments also get to people who are traditionally not considered part of the workforce.
Self-employed people, the disabled, new workers, undocumented immigrants, people caring for children — they are all in desperate need, too. Unemployment claims are vastly understating the crisis. Understatement is inevitable when dealing with a natural and political disaster that has affected to some degree just about every person in the country. There is perhaps no way to do enough at this juncture. But it is clear that the government needs to do much more.