With federal unemployment insurance lapsed, Ohio senators urge action

Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, left, and Rob Portman, a Republican, right. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

A $600 weekly federal supplement to unemployment insurance lapsed last week, leaving many of the 32 million unemployed Americans staring into a financial abyss.

The Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives in May passed a $3 trillion relief bill that would continue the supplement until the economy reaches certain benchmarks. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, last week proposed his own, $1 trillion bill that would slash the unemployment benefit by two thirds. But it’s unclear that he can even get enough votes to pass it out of his own chamber — or get the support of Donald Trump. 

On top of that, Democrats call it a nonstarter.

That has Ohio’s senators calling for action — and vulnerable Republicans in other states calling on McConnell to keep the Senate in session past Thursday, when a month-long recess is scheduled to start.

“Particularly with regard to some of these urgent matters like unemployment insurance, we’re already past time,” Sen. Rob Portman,R-Ohio, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Unemployment insurance expired last Friday. So we’ve got to move forward with that. We should not be playing politics with people’s livelihoods and making this a political football.”

Portman was proposing to extend the $600 benefit for another week while House, Senate and White House continue to negotiate.

For his part, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that one of the “bright spots” in the epidemic is that it hasn’t cratered the economy as badly as coronavirus-induced unemployment might otherwise have.

“That $600 a week kept people in their apartments, kept people able to pay their mortgage, kept people able to feed their kids,” he said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “With tens of millions of people unemployed, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans being unemployed, cutting the unemployment (supplement) from $600 a week to $200 a week… No. 1, it’s inhumane and No. 2, it’s really bad for the economy. I mean, it’s really stupid policy.”

As have many in his caucus, Portman on Tuesday insisted that because many were getting more with the $600 supplement than they were from their jobs, they were reluctant to return to work.

“I was at a plant recently, a Ford plant, where they are looking for people. They have a 25% absenteeism rate right now,” he said. “They attribute a lot of that to the fact people can make more money on unemployment insurance.”

However, several studies, including one released last month by a group of Yale University economists said the data don’t support that argument. It concluded, “the expanded benefits neither encouraged layoffs during the pandemic’s onset nor deterred people from returning to work once businesses began reopening.”

Instead, some experts have said, the fact that unemployment with the supplement pays more than work for so many Americans only highlights how poorly a huge number of jobs pay nowadays. In addition, they say, other issues such as child-care and health conditions are combining with a lack of jobs to keep many away from work. 

Portman seemed to partially acknowledge that in the same speech.

“There’s agreement on both sides of the aisle we’ve got to support our schools and businesses so our kids can get back into the classroom and our parents can get back to work,” he said. 

Brown, Portman’s Democratic colleague, said pressure is building on McConnell to break the logjam and restore the $600 supplement.

“We’re still fighting for it,” Brown said. “McConnell keeps insisting on $200. I think more and more Republican senators are going to McConnell and saying, ‘I don’t think this makes sense for our state. We need to help people who are unemployed. There just aren’t enough jobs out there.’f”

But it’s unclear that the majority leader can get the support of the conservative wing of his caucus. For now, he seems to have headed for the sidelines, saying he’ll support whatever deal is struck by Democratic leaders and the White House.