Bernie Sanders urges Biden administration to keep jobless benefits flowing to gig workers on verge of losing stimulus aid in red states

·3 min read
Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP, Pool
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling on the Labor Department to continue providing PUA benefits to workers.

  • In 14 GOP-led states, governors are ending their participation in federal unemployment benefits.

  • But Sanders and other experts say Biden's Labor Department is required by law to still pay out PUA.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Sen. Bernie Sanders urged the Biden administration on Thursday to prevent the loss of jobless benefits for unemployed Americans in the 14 GOP-led states that are on the verge of ending their participation in federal unemployment benefits next month.

Governors in red states such as Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina have cited a so-called labor shortage as necessitating fewer benefits, so that unemployed residents will be compelled to return to work. As soon as next month, hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of workers will experience a sharp cut in their jobless benefits.

But Sanders is arguing that the Labor Department is mandated to provide Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to all workers, even those in states that are moving to halt it. In a letter to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Sanders said "it is critical that the Department of Labor does everything in its power to ensure that jobless Americans continue to receive this aid as the law intended."

PUA is a federal pandemic-era unemployment expansion that allows more workers - including gig workers and part-time workers - to become eligible for UI benefits. Sanders and other progressive lawmakers have argued that the widespread adoption of PUA by workers shows the need to permanently reform and expand UI eligibility.

"As Secretary, you are obligated to ensure this aid gets to workers," Sanders wrote in his letter to Walsh. "To ensure that obligation is met, I urge you to commit to holding states accountable for their role in administering PUA benefits."

If states end PUA, those newly eligible workers would lose all of their benefits, not just the additional $300 a week. Also at risk are workers on long-term benefits.

Sanders is joining lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden and progressive think tank National Employment Law Project (NELP) in calling on the Labor Department to step in. NELP sent a letter to the Labor Department outlining potential ways to continue the distribution of PUA benefits; the Labor Department told Insider it had received the NELP's memo and was reviewing it, but did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sanders' letter.

The action may not provide immediate aid to the unemployed - and instead spark a time-consuming legal battle with GOP-led states hostile to the federal government administering aid at the statewide level.

"A months-long process would not be surprising," Andrew Stettner, an unemployment expert at the left-leaning Century Foundation, told Insider. "We're still at the very beginning of this. There's been this shocking move by these 14 states and we're trying to push back and say they shouldn't have the authority here to end these benefits."

Stettner projected the step could provide jobless aid to at least 400,000 people on PUA in the affected states. He expressed concern that other states such as Florida and Texas may be next to terminate the federal coronavirus relief programs.

"Secretary Walsh and the Biden Administration have been doing all they can to take concrete action to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks as we know unemployment benefits have served as a vital lifeline for workers throughout the pandemic - to help them buy food, pay rent and remain healthy," Egan Reich, a Labor Department spokesperson, said in a statement to Insider.

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