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Elizabeth Lower-Basch Headshot

Congress: Don't Kick Workers When They're Down

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Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings was 4 to 1 in December 2011. This is a lot better than at the peak of the recession, when nearly seven people were looking for work for every opening, but it still means that no matter how much they search, three people will be left standing without a chair when the music stops.

This is why it's hard to believe that some members of Congress want to make it harder for unemployed workers to get benefits that help them and their families keep their heads above water while they search for a job. As part of the price for extending federal unemployment benefits, House Republicans want to add a provision that denies benefits to workers without a high school diploma or equivalent if they cannot prove they are enrolled in a credential-granting program. Another proposal would require all UI claimants to submit to drug testing as a condition of eligibility. These provisions literally add insult to injury, suggesting that it is unemployed workers' fault that they can't find jobs, no matter how bad the economy.

On the surface, it may seem like a grand idea to motivate more workers to secure more education. After all, unemployment rates get progressively lower for workers with more education. But it is cruel and unfair to use the threat of losing unemployment insurance benefits to do it. First of all, workers only qualify for unemployment benefits based on having a job in the past -- and their employers paid unemployment taxes on their behalf.

Moreover, it is bad policy to require these workers to enroll in education programs without doing anything to increase access to adult education services. A recent survey found that nearly every state had a waiting list for adult education services and that nearly three-quarters of local programs reported waiting lists. This means that even if a worker wanted to enroll in an adult education program, there is no guarantee that he or she could. States should certainly encourage and support workers in getting the education and credentials that they need to succeed in the labor market, but this punitive policy, which denies unemployment insurance benefits at a time when there is one job opening for every four people looking and long-term joblessness is setting records, is not the way to do it.

Another provision would allow states to require applicants and recipients of unemployment insurance to submit to a drug test as a condition of eligibility. This requirement would stigmatize unemployed workers and is likely unconstitutional. There is no basis, other than stereotype, for believing that unemployed workers are particularly likely to use drugs. States already can deny unemployment benefits to workers who have been fired for substance use or who were denied a job because of substance use. Widespread chemical testing is an expensive and ineffective way to identify workers with substance abuse problems.

Unemployment benefits are a support for workers who have been laid off for no fault of their own. Although unemployment has fallen to 8.3 percent, it is still high, representing 12.76 million people who are actively looking for work but can't find a job. Nearly 43 percent of unemployed workers, or 5.5 million, have been out of a job for six months or more. These workers foremost want jobs. In the meantime, many of them need access to the vital lifeline that is unemployment insurance to avoid financial ruin.

At this unprecedented economic time, our policymakers need to have empathy and understanding of what ordinary American families are enduring. Federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits play a critical role in keeping workers and their families out of poverty and in making sure they can keep a roof over their heads, pay their bills, and buy the gas they need to keep looking for work.

Congress must vote by Feb. 28 to extend federal UI benefits. As members hammer out the final details of the legislation, they should think about the needs of their constituents. And they should extend the program without added provisions that unjustifiably deny earned benefits to the least educated workers or stigmatize hard working people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.