State and federal leaders have taken action to help struggling Alabamians stay healthy and make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must do more. Arise’s Robyn Hyden gives a video update on the coronavirus’ implications for Medicaid expansion, public health funding, food assistance, unemployment insurance, paid family and medical leave, prisons and jails, and other concerns.
Like all of you, we’re doing what we can to weather this crisis, and we have many concerns about the health and well-being of our families and communities. Arise executive director Robyn Hyden highlights some resources on our website that can help you navigate new SNAP and unemployment insurance benefits available for people who need immediate assistance.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused an unprecedented increase in unemployment insurance claims nationally. And the story is the same in Alabama, where 74,056 UI claims were filed in the week ending Saturday, March 28. That’s easily a record high since 1987, the earliest year for which weekly data is available for Alabama. The number of claims likely will continue to increase quickly in the coming weeks.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for Alabama to lift harmful UI cuts and barriers that lawmakers erected last year. In the meantime, three types of state and federal payments can help Alabamians who have lost their jobs or have working hours reduced because of the pandemic. They are traditional unemployment insurance (UI), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and recovery rebates.
Unemployment insurance (UI)
This program provides financial support for qualifying Alabamians who lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in hours through no fault of their own. The weekly payments range from $45 to $275, based on earnings in roughly the past year and a half. That’s well below the nationwide median of $366 per week.
Alabama’s UI system is stressed by new claims because of recent massive layoffs. Many applicants have experienced long delays in accessing the website and phone lines to apply for benefits. As in other states, Alabama’s UI system wasn’t ready for a rapid, unprecedented flood of new applicants. But that’s no reason to delay a UI application if you’ve lost your job. You can click here to apply for UI benefits in Alabama.
The Alabama Department of Labor (DOL) has taken some important steps to ease UI access during the pandemic. The DOL has waived its usual requirements for job searches and a one-week waiting period before benefits begin. Employers also will not be penalized with an increased UI tax rate based on high amounts of paid benefits for now. This removes a motivation for employers to dispute an employee’s claim for benefits.
Even Alabama’s maximum UI benefit amount is insufficient to secure the basic needs of many people. Fortunately, new federal legislation enacted Friday will help jobless workers fill that gap for the next few months. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will allow Alabama to provide an additional 13 weeks of federally funded UI benefits. The CARES Act also will supplement state benefits by providing a federally funded $600 weekly benefit increase through July 31.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)
This new federal program provides benefits to many people who lost their jobs amid the pandemic but don’t qualify for traditional UI benefits. Participants can receive up to 39 weeks of PUA benefits. Eligible people include:
- Self-employed people
- People who haven’t been working long enough to qualify for UI
- Contract workers and gig workers
- People who have exhausted regular UI benefits
- People whose workplaces closed because of COVID-19
- Caretakers of people sick with COVID-19
PUA participants will receive half of the average weekly regular UI benefit in Alabama. They are also eligible for the federally funded $600 weekly benefit increase available to beneficiaries of regular UI. Federal and state agencies are still working to implement guidelines for the new program.
These benefits are refundable, one-time federal payments. The money will not count as federal taxable income. Here are some key facts:
- The full rebate amounts are $1,200 for single adults and married couples who file taxes separately, and $2,400 for married couples filing jointly.
- Families also will receive an additional $500 per dependent child under age 17. The $500 payment is unavailable for older dependents like college students, seniors or adults with disabilities.
- Rebates will be paid in full to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year. These rebates are available to individuals or households who filed a tax return in either 2018 or 2019. Millions of Americans with extremely low incomes likely will have to file a return to receive the rebate.
- The rebate phases down gradually for individuals who reported more than $75,000 in annual income and for couples who reported more than $150,000 in annual income. Payments will be unavailable to individuals with annual incomes of more than $99,000 and couples with annual incomes of more than $198,000.
- Payments will arrive via direct deposit for those who have given the IRS their deposit information. Others will receive a check.
State changes to unemployment insurance still needed
UI benefit increases and removal of barriers are good first steps toward ensuring state and federal governments mitigate the economic consequences of COVID-19 as much as possible. The Alabama DOL’s response to the CARES Act has been quick and thorough. But the state still needs to take bold action in other areas to blunt the damage the pandemic will do to the economic health of the people of Alabama.
State lawmakers should build on the federal UI improvements in the CARES Act by undoing recent harmful policy changes. Alabama’s UI system offers fewer weeks of coverage than most other states because of a 2019 law sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
Orr’s measure reduced the maximum number of weeks an Alabamian could claim UI benefits from 26 – the standard in most states – to somewhere between 14 and 20, depending on the unemployment rate. It conditioned five additional weeks of benefits on participation in job training programs, some of which are now shut down because of COVID-19.
The 2019 law tied the maximum number of benefit weeks to the unemployment rate. Because Alabama’s published unemployment rates were unusually low recently, the number of benefit weeks is set at the lowest level, 14 weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that published unemployment rates lag behind the reality that tens of thousands of Alabamians experience during crises.
The coronavirus pandemic threatens to trigger economic suffering unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Alabama should help jobless workers endure this downturn by boosting weekly UI benefits and removing harmful barriers to unemployment assistance. Repealing the 2019 UI limits and restoring the full 26 weeks of state-funded benefits would be a great start.
The World Health Organization has labeled COVID-19 a global pandemic. And state officials announced the first confirmed case of the disease in Alabama on Friday. As the virus strains our health systems, schools and economy, we must ensure the most vulnerable Alabamians have the medical care, social supports and other protections they need to weather the crisis.
The Alabama Legislature will be on spring break for the next two weeks. We hope our state lawmakers and members of Congress will take time to examine the situation developing in their communities. And we hope they will act quickly and courageously to address these critical public health needs.
Here are seven actions that policymakers should take now to protect the well-being and security of all Alabamians:
1. Gov. Kay Ivey should expand Medicaid.
Medicaid expansion would extend health coverage to more than 223,000 uninsured Alabamians with low incomes. It also would ensure coverage for another 120,000 who struggle to afford the insurance they have.
Expansion would take several months to implement, but it would prepare us for the big challenges ahead. In the short term, Medicaid could take numerous other steps to protect families. Examples include streamlining enrollment, covering new mothers for one year after delivery and increasing our “bare-bones” income limit for parents.
Email Gov. Ivey to ask her to expand Medicaid and help address the coronavirus threat. Or if you’d prefer to reach out by phone, click here to call Gov. Ivey’s office.
2. Lawmakers should increase funding for public health to ensure adequate testing, preparation and prevention.
In addition, state and local agencies should take the lead on proactive policies and procedures to protect those who are most vulnerable to this virus. Read State Health Officer Scott Harris’ report to the Senate Health Committee.
3. Congress should authorize emergency food assistance increases.
Boosting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would help children get the food they need while they’re out of school. It also would promote food security for seniors, people who lose their jobs and other people at risk of hunger. Read additional recommendations to address critical food security issues from our partners at the Food Research and Action Center.
4. Policymakers should remove barriers to social support services.
Medicaid, SNAP, WIC and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) save and improve lives. Red-tape barriers to these services make it harder for struggling families to get the help they need during a crisis. Read Arise’s fact sheet to learn why state lawmakers should abandon efforts to reduce access to safety net programs.
5. State lawmakers should remove the state sales tax on groceries while protecting education funding.
As many people prepare for social distancing by purchasing enough food to last for several weeks, the grocery tax imposes the highest tax burden on the people who can least afford it. It’s yet another illustration of why this cruel tax must end. Click here to urge state legislators to untax groceries and replace the revenue by supporting SB 144.
6. Policymakers should look at options to extend paid medical and family leave to every worker.
States including Washington and Massachusetts have created affordable buy-in plans so that even smaller employers can provide extended medical or family leave. Read how paid family and medical leave was made affordable and available to every worker in the state of Washington. Then read more about federal discussions to provide short-term relief for paid leave.
7. Alabama should expand unemployment protections to mitigate the effects of job losses for individuals and communities.
Closures and layoffs in the coming months will leave many workers without essential income. Public officials must act now to reduce the financial toll on people who struggle to make ends meet. Read recommendations from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) about potential improvements to unemployment insurance coverage.
The conversation about the best policy and social responses will continue to evolve over the coming days and weeks. And additional needs and solutions are likely to emerge. Throughout this crisis and beyond, Arise will continue to speak out for dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians.
Arise members showed up in force in Montgomery on Tuesday for our annual Legislative Day! Arise’s Chris Sanders gives a brief recap of the event and introduces a replay of our news conference on untaxing groceries. (Please note: The news conference footage was streamed from a cell phone and includes a few moments of adjustment.)
Today, Feb. 25, is our annual Legislative Day, and we’re excited to continue our efforts to untax groceries. Arise’s Carol Gundlach talks about steps you can take to contact your lawmakers on this issue if you can’t be there in person.
Shortchanging higher education is shortchanging Alabama’s future. It’s a harmful choice that’s limiting opportunity for people across our state. But better policy choices can create a more prosperous future and help all Alabamians reach their full potential.
Alabama has slashed its per-student state higher education funding more than any other state over the last decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Since 2008, Alabama has cut higher ed funding by 36.2%, or $4,466 per student, CBPP found. Those cuts are the nation’s worst by dollar amount and third worst by percentage.
“We are dissuading folks from pursuing their dreams,” I told WBHM reporter Janae Pierre last week. “We’re reducing campus diversity, and we’re reducing opportunity for people to get ahead and build a better life for themselves and their families.”
With state funding down, tuition has soared. Between 2008 and 2018, the average tuition at public four-year institutions in Alabama jumped by 72.9%. These massive increases have erected barriers to opportunity for people across Alabama. And these barriers disproportionately block the paths of black and Latino students.
As I told WBHM: “We are asking an entire generation of folks to take on massive debt to begin their careers, to pursue their professional dreams. … Either people aren’t able to pursue the degree in the first place or they have to begin their career with five- or six-figure debt hanging over their head.”
Check out Alabama Arise’s news release for more information on the CBPP report. And check out my full interview with WBHM for more on how Alabama can help make college accessible and affordable for everyone, regardless of income.
Alabama has slashed its per-student state higher education funding more than any other state over the last decade, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington, D.C.
Since 2008, Alabama has cut state higher education funding by 36.2%, or $4,466 per student, CBPP found. The state’s cuts are the nation’s worst by dollar amount and third worst by percentage. Nationally, the average cuts since 2008 are 13%, or $1,220 per student.
Alabama’s inadequate public investment in higher education over the last decade has contributed to soaring tuition costs. And that has forced many students either to start their careers in deep debt or abandon their college dreams entirely.
Between 2008 and 2018, the average tuition at public four-year institutions in Alabama jumped by $4,489, or 72.9%. That is nearly twice the national average growth of 37% – and almost exactly matches the size of state funding cuts. These soaring costs have erected barriers to opportunity for young people across Alabama, particularly for black and Latino students.
“This is another example of how short-sighted education cuts hurt people across Alabama,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “Pushing college students and their families into deep debt isn’t making our state stronger. We need to invest more in education at all levels to build an Alabama where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”
Soaring tuition disproportionately harms black and Latino students
Alabama’s rising college costs have hit hardest among black and Latino students. In 2017, the average net price of attending a public four-year university accounted for:
- 35% of median household income for all families in Alabama.
- 45% of median household income for Latino families in Alabama.
- 54% of median household income for black families in Alabama.
Financial aid has not increased enough to cover higher college costs nationwide. The resulting higher prices can dissuade many students from enrolling or finishing their degrees. Tuition increases also can reduce campus diversity, especially among people of color and students from households with low wealth.
A large and growing share of future jobs will require college-educated workers. Greater public investment in higher education, particularly in need-based aid, would help Alabama develop the skilled and diverse workforce it needs to match the jobs of the future.
“All Alabamians, regardless of their income or hometown, deserve an opportunity to reach their full potential,” Hyden said. “Alabama should invest in making college more affordable for the students who need assistance the most. And ending skewed tax breaks for large corporations and wealthy households would be a good place to start.”
“Anybody who’s ever paid for child care knows it’s cheaper to pay for college sometimes.”
That’s what I told AL.com’s Anna Claire Vollers about Alabama’s shortage of affordable child care. Her new article this week examines how expensive child care limits economic opportunity for struggling parents across our state.
Quality, affordable child care is essential for families seeking to escape poverty and participate in employment, education and job training. And while a federal funding increase has allowed Alabama to boost child care subsidies and expanded eligibility in recent years, there’s still much work left to do.
The AL.com article highlights Alabama Arise’s recent report on child care funding. It discusses the progress that Alabama has made in the past few years. And it illustrates many needs yet to be met, especially in rural areas and among Hispanic families.
State investment would make a real difference. As I said in the article: “Alabama is a state that puts absolutely no state dollars other than those mandated by the federal government into child care. That’s not true in most states.”
U.S. Census findings released Tuesday show that about 32,000 more Alabamians were uninsured in 2018 than in 2017. They also found that the state’s uninsured rate remained higher than the national average. Alabama Arise policy director Jim Carnes issued the following statement in response:
“No one should have to go without the medical care they need simply because they can’t afford it. But that’s the reality for a growing number of Alabamians, because our state has refused to expand Medicaid. Gov. Kay Ivey and state lawmakers need to lift this policy barrier that separates hundreds of thousands of Alabamians from affordable health coverage.
“As Alabama’s inaction on Medicaid expansion continues, our state’s uninsured rate continues to climb. The share of Alabamians without health insurance coverage rose to 10% in 2018, up from 9.4% in 2017. This is a trend in the wrong direction, but we can reverse it with better policy choices.
“All Alabamians would benefit from Medicaid expansion. More than 340,000 adults across the state would gain health security. The new coverage would pump about $1.7 billion a year in direct federal spending into our economy. And over the next four years, economic activity related to expansion would generate $446 million in state tax revenues.
“Even more important than the economic gains would be the human gains. Medicaid expansion would give Alabama better tools to address mental illnesses, substance use disorders, infant mortality and other longstanding challenges. Closing our state’s coverage gap would mean healthier families, more vibrant communities and a more productive workforce.
“It’s time to make an investment in Alabama’s future. The governor should expand Medicaid to protect rural hospitals, create thousands of jobs and make Alabama healthier.”