- 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)
SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section
- The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June.
- The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
- Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary.
- It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.
College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay
College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.
Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”
The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary.
While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S.
Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.
With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.
The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test
In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.
In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.
According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.
For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)
Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban
- President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.
- Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
- The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions.
Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban
President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.
That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.
Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”
It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead.
Biden To Block Trump’s Order
Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.
“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.
“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.
With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect.
It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.
Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.
See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)
New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns
- The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
- The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
- The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.
CDC Issues Warning
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus.
The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.
Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.
Mitigating Spread of Variant
“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”
The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.
“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.
“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”