- Unemployment claims have spiked for the first time since early October, with 742,000 people filing last week. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
- Meanwhile, a new study found that more than 12 million Americans will lose their benefits the day after Christmas when federal unemployment programs are set to expire if Congress does not extend them.
- Congress is still at an impasse on another coronavirus relief bill.
- Meanwhile, large companies like Amazon and Walmart are not giving hazard pay to essential workers even as cases spike and both companies saw major quarterly profits increases.
The Department of Labor (DOL) reported Thursday that another 742,000 Americans filed for unemployment — the highest spike in claims since early October. According to experts, the new figures are a sign that the recent coronavirus spikes are slowing the economy and companies are cutting jobs.
While 742,000 is less than the millions of claims that were filed back in March and April, it is still more than three times higher than the 210,000 new claims that were filed each week for the first two months of the year before all the shutdowns.
Notably, that newly released number does not include every American who filed joblessness benefits in the last week. There are separate programs for federal workers and veterans, among others.
One of the largest is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for freelancers and self-employed people. This week, the DOL reported that the number of people who filed claims under that program had also increased from last week to just over 320,200.
Even then, those figures only represent claims filed in the course of the last week, not total unemployment. According to the most recent DOL data, at the end of last month, 20 million Americans were still out of work.
Benefits Expiring and Stalled Stimulus
Further complicating matters is the fact that the remaining federal benefits approved under the CARES Act are set to expire in mere weeks.
According to a new report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, more than half of those 20 million unemployed Americans — roughly 12 million — will lose their benefits entirely the day after Christmas if those programs are not renewed by Congress and President Donald Trump.
One of those programs is the PUA program, which The Century Foundation estimates would leave 7.3 million people without unemployment benefits. The other program is the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which allowed out of work Americans to collect benefits for an extra 13 weeks beyond the usual 26 weeks provided by states.
The loss of that program would leave another 4.6 million without benefits when it expires, the study estimates. Notably, the 12 million Americans who will lose their benefits on Dec. 26 is in addition to the estimated 4.4. million who will have already exhausted their CARES Act benefits before these programs expire.
While The Century Foundation did find that 2.9 million people who had been on the federal extended benefits would be eligible for state-level extended benefits once the deadline hits, states would have to pick up the tab for those benefits at a time when their funds are totally depleted and Congress has also not helped them since the CARES Act.
But after months of deadlock, the talks largely stalled ahead of the election and in the chaotic aftermath. While key Democrats are seeking to restart those talks this week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who has said he wants to pass some kind of bill before the end of the year — it is unclear how the problems that existed for months throughout these negotiations will just go away.
Democrats have been pushing for one large, comprehensive bill worth about $2.2 trillion, and while in the lead up to the election the White House had agreed to a number very close to that, McConnell has refused to bring anything even remotely near that price to that to the floor.
Instead, he has continually pushed for a so-called “skinny” bill that would provide about $500 billion worth of funding.
In other words: despite the repeated abject failures by those in power to give Americans the help they have needed since March, it appears that Congress is still no closer to a deal.
“Congress is set to cut off 12 million Americans from the only thing holding them back from falling into financial wreckage and disaster,” Andrew Stettner, a co-author of The Century Foundation’s study told NPR, adding that Congress’ inability to come up with a deal comes “at a time when things are getting worse with the virus rather than better, making it harder and more dangerous for people to go back to work.”
Lack of Hazard Pay
To that point, it is not just Congress that’s giving American workers a lot of grief.
Even as the number of coronavirus cases are rising dramatically, retail workers have not been receiving hazard pay, even though major retailers have recently been seeing increased profit margins, and that trend is expected to continue as the holiday season approaches.
According to The New York Times, Amazon — which stopped its $2-an-hour hazard-pay raise for workers earlier this year — has said it was not planning any new hazard pay bumps. The world’s second-largest retailer made this decision despite the fact that it has thrived during the pandemic, reporting last month that its quarterly profit had increased by nearly 200%.
Amazon has also been subject to much criticism over its treatment of essential retail workers during the pandemic. Among other issues, there have been numerous outbreaks at Amazon warehouse facilities, some of which have been fined as recently as last month for pandemic workplace safety violations.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, also reported a significant increase in quarterly sales this week. While the company said it had paid a series of special cash bonuses to employees throughout the pandemic, it also has not raised wages for workers who are on the frontlines endangering their lives.
Those two companies are not alone: many other large corporations like Lowes and Kroger have also come under fire for refusing to give their employees hazard pay while enjoying high profits. Experts have said that many of these companies can afford to share their earnings, but instead, many are reportedly helping out wealthy shareholders through stock buybacks.
While some lawmakers have tried to step in and help compensate retail workers, efforts to provide hazard pay both in the stimulus bills and in separate legislation have failed.
States Take Action
Notably, some states have been rolling out programs to help their unemployed residents and fill the void left by Congress.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) launched a new online training platform that will provide access to nearly 4,000 online courses and programs to provide New Yorkers with new skills and certificates to advance their careers at no cost.
The tool will specifically focus on training up people for jobs growing, in-demand economic sectors like manufacturing, technology, and health care.
“This new training platform will be key in this effort by ensuring unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers are not left behind by providing access to the resources and training they need to get back on their feet,” Cuomo said in a press release announcing the launch.
While many cheered the new program as a helpful long-term solution to the unemployment crisis, others noted that it will do little to help people in the short term if the federal unemployment benefits expire, underscoring the need for another coronavirus relief bill immediately.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The New York Times) (The Associated Press)
Man Spent COVID Relief Loan on $58,000 Pokemon Card, Feds Say
The man is facing a wire fraud charge, which carries a max sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, along with a $250,000 fine.
COVID Relief Funds Used on Pokemon Card
Authorities have accused a man in Georgia of misusing COVID-19 relief funds, claiming that he spent $57,789 on a single Pokemon card.
Prosecutors said Vinath Oudomsine made false statements about the gross revenue his business earns and the number of workers he employs when he applied for aid authorized under the CARES Act.
On his July 2020 application, Oudomsine allegedly claimed he had 10 employees and 12-month gross revenues of $235,000.
The following month, he was given about $85,000 from the Small Business Administration (SBA), which means he spent nearly all of the money on the rare card.
Authorities have given few details about the specific card purchased, though they have said Oudomsine was charged with wire fraud and is expected to appear in court on Thursday.
The charge carries a max sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, along with a $250,000 fine.
Misuse of COVID Relief Funds
Oudomsine is far from the first person to face charges for fraud related to small business loans issued amid the pandemic. Others who received relief funds have been accused of spending the money on Lamborghinis, nights at strip clubs, and even an alpaca farm, among other purchases.
In fact, the first person to be charged with fraudulently seeking a pandemic relief loan was recently sentenced to 56 months in prison following a nationwide search after the man faked his own death.
According to The Washington Post, a federal watchdog said this month that the SBA overpaid $4.5 billion in grants to self-employed people and that “no system of controls was in place to flag applications with flawed or illogical information.”
On top of that, the SBA inspector general determined earlier this year that the agency rushed to send out billions of dollars in loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) “at the expense of controls” that could have blocked inappropriate aid.
In a statement on Sunday, the agency said that under the Biden administration, it has worked with Congress and the inspector general to add antifraud measures. Meanwhile, defenders of pandemic relief programs have argued that flagged loans and grants represent only a small fraction of the distributed aid that has been critical to small businesses and their pandemic recovery.
See what others are saying: (NPR)(USA Today)(The Washington Post)
FDA Authorizes Moderna and J&J COVID Vaccine Boosters, Approves Mix-and-Match Doses
The approval will allow at-risk Americans who received Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to get any booster six months after their initial series and all Johnson & Johnson recipients 18 and older to do the same two months after their single-shot dose.
New FDA Authorization
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized boosters shots of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines and approved a mix-and-match strategy that will allow people who got one company’s shot to get a booster from a different maker.
The decision paves the way for millions of more at-risk Americans to get extra protection, and not just certain Pfizer recipients as previously approved by the FDA.
Under the authorization, people who received Moderna or Pfizer can get any one of the three booster shots six months after completing their initial series if they are 65 and older, at high risk of severe COVID, or face increased exposure because of their work.
Meanwhile, all J&J recipients 18 and older can get any of the approved vaccines two months after they received the one-shot jab.
Hazy Recommendations, For Now
Notably, the FDA did not recommend a certain combination of vaccines, nor did the agency say whether or not it would be more effective for people to stick with their original vaccine maker for their booster.
The new authorizations draw on a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which found that there are no safety concerns with mixing boosters and that vaccine combinations were at least as effective in stimulating antibodies as matched vaccines.
In the case of J&J recipients, the NIH found that people actually had a higher boost from mixing either Moderna or Pfizer boosters.
However, some of the scientists who worked on the study said it should not be used to recommend one combination over another because the research was limited.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which determines vaccine recommendations, could issue more guidance on when and whether people should switch vaccine makers for their booster shots.
An advisory panel for the agency is meeting Thursday to discuss the new FDA authorizations and recommendations.
Once the panel makes its decision, the CDC director has the final say on the guidelines. If the agency agrees with the FDA’s decisions, the booster shots could be rolled out as soon as this weekend.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Paris Hilton Urges Lawmakers To Crack Down on Abusive Teen Treatment Facilities
The heiress alleges that she was a victim of abuse in these types of centers for two years and wants to ensure that no child suffers through the same experience.
Paris Hilton Details Abuse Within “Troubled Teen Industry”
Socialite and entrepreneur Paris Hilton spoke outside of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to support the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, which is set to be introduced in the near future.
Hilton joined Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to advocate for the legislation, which aims to create a “bill of rights” for children in treatment and behavioral centers.
The heiress has alleged that she spent two of her teenage years in these types of facilities and was subject to rampant abuse. She is far from alone.
During a press conference, Hilton said that one night when she was 16, she woke up to two large men in her bedroom forcing her out of her house. She said she screamed for help because she thought she was being kidnapped, but her parents watched as she was taken away to a “troubled teen” program.
“Like countless other parents of teens, my parents had searched for solutions to my rebellious behavior,” she explained in an op-ed for The Washington Post this week. “Unfortunately, they fell for the misleading marketing of the ‘troubled teen industry’ — therapeutic boarding schools, military-style boot camps, juvenile justice facilities, behavior modification programs and other facilities that generate roughly $50 billion annually in part by pitching ‘tough love’ as the answer to problematic behavior.”
Hilton said she was sent to four different facilities where she was “physically and psychologically abused.”
“I was strangled, slapped across the face, watched in the shower by male staff, called vulgar names, forced to take medication without a diagnosis, not given a proper education, thrown into solitary confinement in a room covered in scratch marks and smeared in blood and so much more,” she explained during the press conference.
“At Provo Canyon School in Utah, I was given clothes with a number on the tag. I was no longer me, I was only number 127,” she continued. “I was forced to stay indoors for 11 months straight, no sunlight, no fresh air. These were considered privileges.”
Goals of the Accountability for Congregate Care Act
Hilton claims that a lack of transparency and accountability has allowed this structure of abuse to thrive for decades. In some cases, she said it has taken children’s lives. Now, she wants Congress and President Joe Biden to act.
“This bill creates an urgently needed bill of rights to ensure that every child placed into congregate care facilities is provided a safe and humane environment,” Hilton said of the Accountability for Congregate Care Act.
“This bill of rights provides protections that I wasn’t afforded, like access to education, to the outdoors, freedom from abusive treatment, and even the basic right to move and speak freely. If I had these rights and could have exercised them, I would have been saved from over 20 years of trauma and severe PTSD.”
Foster children, children being treated for mental disorders, and other children in youth programs would be impacted by the bill.
Hilton was one of several survivors and advocates who fought for the legislation on Wednesday. Rep. Khanna thanked them for using their stories to fight for change.
“No child should be subjected to solitary confinement, forced labor, or any form of institutional abuse,” he wrote. “Thanks to Paris Hilton, my colleagues & the survivors & advocates who joined us today to discuss how we can hold the congregate care industry accountable.”
While only Democratic legislators are currently sponsoring the bill, Hilton called for a bipartisan effort to fight for the rights of children.
“Ensuring that children are safe from institutional abuse isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Hilton said. “It’s a basic human rights issue that requires immediate attention.”