PROVINCETOWN — Unemployment insurance dates back to 1935 and the same New Deal law that created Social Security. This year, however, unemployment benefits were radically expanded and repurposed as coronavirus relief.
When it became clear in March 2020 that huge parts of the economy would have to shut down because of the pandemic, Congress turned the existing unemployment system into a conduit to help replace lost wages. State documents show that tens of millions of dollars flowed into the Outer Cape through this route.
With winter approaching, though, the expanded unemployment insurance system has become more confusing than ever — and the late-starting summer season may cause some people to be locked out entirely.
The original unemployment system was limited in various ways and covered only about half of the actual American workforce, according to Phineas Baxandall, a social insurance expert at the Mass. Budget and Policy Center. The expansion Congress passed during the shutdown made payments last longer, made them much more generous, and allowed more workers to qualify, including part-time workers, independent contractors, and the self-employed.
Though many states struggled to get money into the hands of laid-off workers, Massachusetts was able to respond faster than most. By mid-April, when the expansion had largely taken effect, the system was putting $1.5 million a week into the hands of Outer Cape workers. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, created from scratch for various independent workers who hadn’t qualified in the past, came online in late April, and, by May, it was sending out money as well.
The Independent reviewed data from the state about weekly unemployment claims (not including PUA claims). From Jan. 1 through the first week of September, the state’s unemployment system put $23.4 million into the four Outer Cape towns. Of that amount, $18 million came in during the 16 weeks in which Congress augmented the weekly benefit amount with an extra $600 per week. Those 16 weeks, from April 5 through July 25, saw $7 million come into Provincetown through the unemployment system, $5 million into Eastham, $3.4 million into Wellfleet, and $2.7 million into Truro.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend these augmented benefits, but the Republican-controlled Senate refused. Since Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan has led to most Outer Cape businesses reopening and most people returning to work, claims for the week of Sept. 5 (the last week included in the state data) are the lowest they have been all year.
Winter is coming, however, and some restaurants and hotels are beginning to close. A long winter after a truncated summer season could spell trouble for some workers.
A Tangle of Rules
The unemployment system has been revised and expanded so many times that the rules seem to fold in on each other. Monica Halas, an unemployment law expert at Greater Boston Legal Services, is worried about one rule in particular.
“If your work falls into one or two calendar quarters — say, the April-May-June and the July-August-September quarters — and then you also have seriously fluctuating wages, where some weeks are much higher than others, you can fall into a kind of hole in the formula and not be eligible for any unemployment benefits at all,” said Halas.
In that situation, the formula for unemployment is based on the average weekly wage in only the higher-earning quarter. The income for the higher quarter is divided by 13 to make the average weekly wage, then divided by two to determine the weekly benefit amount (WBA). Income for the two quarters combined must be at least 30 times the WBA.
Ordinarily, total income will exceed 30 times the WBA. But if you’ve only worked 15 weeks — or if your income is different each week and is almost all stacked up in one quarter, with hardly any in the other quarter — then you can run afoul of the formula and be completely ineligible.
So, for instance, one person could earn $13,000 in the third quarter and $2,000 in the fourth quarter and be eligible, while a co-worker earns $14,000 in the third quarter and $1,000 in the fourth quarter and is not eligible.
“I’ve worked with legislators to get this fixed for years — like, I can’t remember how many sessions now,” said Halas. “We’ve never been able to get it into the final bill. It’s hard to explain even to legislators.”
This year, though, it’s not just a theoretical concern. Many businesses were allowed to open only in June. Some are closing at the end of September. An employee who worked two weeks in June and then through the end of September has a real chance of falling into this “hole” in the rules.
Similarly, a worker at a “phase three” business who started work on July 6 and finishes around Columbus Day could easily fall into the “hole” as well.
This is especially important because the unemployment system may be used again for coronavirus relief. It’s unlikely that an extension of expanded benefits will pass before the election, but early in 2021, whichever party has won power is likely to want to help the economy, and they might use unemployment insurance to do it.
Policymakers will have plenty of options. The PUA program for independent workers ends completely on Dec. 26, said Halas. It was created from scratch in the March 27 CARES Act, and it covered a huge segment of workers who have never had unemployment protections before.
PUA could expire in December and be resurrected by a new Congress in February. It could be replaced by something weaker — or by something stronger. In a year as strange as this one, and heading into a long nationwide winter, no one knows for sure what the rules will be next year.