Mark Fischenich: Ask Us: Fox News overstates Minnesota jobless benefits

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Feb. 12—Q: My question is, we all know there's nobody out there to hire. Now Fox News, which doesn't always tell the truth, kept saying that unemployment benefits were too high and that's why nobody is applying for jobs — because they're getting too much from unemployment. The number that kept coming up was $100,000. I think it was Jesse Watters, the chart had Washington state on top at $122,000. The next, Massachusetts and New Jersey, both were over $100,000. Fourth in line was of most interest to me — Minnesota at $98,000 plus. I don't believe this is an average; it might be the top dog. If anybody is getting $100,000 in unemployment, the public ought to know.

A: Ask Us Guy doesn't want to get into the habit of fact-checking TV channels. But this topic involves payments made — or maybe not made — to Minnesota residents in The Free Press coverage area who are unemployed, so he decided to verify the actual maximum jobless benefits provided by the state.

First, a bit of background. The reader was watching the Dec. 28 edition of "Jesse Watters Primetime," guest-hosted by Rachel Campos-Duffy, when the unemployment issue arose.

"Instead of going to work, people just binge-watch Netflix and smoke legalized pot," Campos-Duffy said. "And now we know it actually pays more to not work. A new report published by The Committee to Unleash Prosperity shows that you can actually make a six-figure salary just off of unemployment benefits. If you live in Washington state, you don't have to have a job — they'll offer you $122,000 a year in payouts."

A graphic behind Campos-Duffy showed a young guy, smiling broadly, sitting in a bed covered with scattered cash and two cloth bags — yet to be opened — with the "$" imprinted on them. A chart titled "Annualized Unemployment Benefits" showed a list of states with their purported payouts to the jobless, including Minnesota at $98,915.

"No wonder businesses are struggling to hire people," Campos-Duffy said. "Businesses can't compete with government. And no one wants to work."

So Ask Us Guy checked with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which oversees the state's unemployment insurance program, to see if the pot-smoking, Netflix-watching moneybags dude could actually make $98,915 by not working.

No, he can't, according to DEED. Not even close.

"Unemployment Insurance (UI) replaces 50% of a worker's lost weekly wage up to a maximum of $857 per week in Minnesota (for workers who made at least $1,714 per week before they became unemployed)," DEED stated.

Over an entire year, those $857 in maximum weekly cash benefits would become $44,564 — less than half what Campos-Duffy led the Mankato viewer to believe. But, as it turns out, people get cut off from unemployment checks much sooner than 52 weeks.

"UI benefits can last up to 26 weeks during a calendar year if someone is unable to find employment before they run out of benefits for the year," according to DEED. "So, the maximum someone in Minnesota could receive in a calendar year in UI benefits would be $22,282."

And, again, that $22,282 maximum is only available to people who had been working a job paying $89,128 or more per year before being laid off.

Which raises the question of why the Fox News Channel would put out such a wildly exaggerated figure while falsely claiming ".. now we know it actually pays more to not work."

Ask Us Guy looked up the source cited by Campos-Duffy, and all of the figures on the Fox News chart were included in the report produced by The Committee to Unleash Prosperity. But the report doesn't claim — as Fox News did — that the top three states pay a "six-figure salary just off of unemployment benefits" or that Minnesota pays up to $98,915 a year to a jobless resident.

In the Committee to Unleash Prosperity's report, the figures highlighted by Fox News involved the combined value of cash benefits for a two-parent household where both parents had been working but were now unemployed. So it's the unemployment checks for TWO jobless people — not one.

And the report — rather than listing a weekly unemployment payment — multiplies it by 52. That's a fairly typical practice in news stories about income, because most people are attuned to thinking of annual income rather than weekly income.

In this case, however, it's extremely misleading to annualize the unemployment payments because — as DEED noted — unemployment checks are cut off after a half-year.

So Campos-Duffy said she was sharing with viewers how much someone receives in unemployment in various states. But she neglected to mention that the figure had been doubled (the combined unemployment checks of a jobless couple) and then doubled again (the checks for the couple for an entire year, even though the checks would stop after six months).

Finally, The Committee to Unleash Prosperity tacked on non-cash benefits to the state-by-state figures — using a calculation that aimed to show the tax advantages of unemployment income over standard paychecks, along with the value of Affordable Care Act medical insurance benefits the unemployed couple is eligible to receive while unemployed.

Those benefits combined for less than $10,000 in the Minnesota example, even though the Committee to Unleash Prosperity decided to inflate the medical insurance subsidies by giving the unemployed couple two children.

The folks at Fox News might not be interested in Ask Us Guy's advice, but he would suggest a few adjustments if the network does any follow-up coverage of state unemployment benefits.

First, the numbers on the chart should be reduced by about 75% to avoid misleading people like the Mankato viewer who submitted this week's Ask Us question.

And the graphic showing the unemployed guy in the bed? The money bag to the left of the guy should probably go. That would leave space for his wife to join him, giving viewers a visual cue that half the cash doesn't even belong to the guy.

Plus, their two kids should probably be squeezed onto the bed, creating a family photo. At that point, though, the graphics designer might want to turn the dad's ecstatic smile into a grimace.

Because, along with the financial hit of both him and his wife losing $89,000-a-year jobs, there's no way all four of them are going to agree on which show to binge-watch on Netflix.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, 418 S. Second St., Mankato, MN 56001. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to; put Ask Us in the subject line.