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12 Million Americans at Risk of Losing Unemployment Benefits After Christmas as Claims Spike for the First Time Since October

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  • 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.

Claims Rise

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)

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College Board Changes AP African American Studies After Backlash From DeSantis Amid Education Culture War

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As requested by DeSantis, the College Board removed lessons on contemporary topics including Black Lives Matter, queer studies, and reparations.


College Board Rolls Out Curriculum

The College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement high school courses, announced an official curriculum framework for its new, landmark Advanced Placement African American studies on Wednesday.

The announcement, made on the first day of Black History Month, has faced scrutiny for seeming to scale back a number of relevant subjects that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other state education officials had criticized.

In January, DeSantis said that the new course would be banned in Florida unless changes were made, arguing that a draft version of the course was “woke.” 

Education officials claimed that the class, which had been in the making for nearly a decade, violated a recent state law dubbed the Stop WOKE Act. The legislation regulates public school instruction on race by banning critical race theory and any education that describes some groups as oppressed and others as privileged based on race or sex.

Democrats denounced DeSantis’ action as a political stunt and urged the College Board to maintain its principles.

According to reports, many historical topics like slavery largely remain intact from the previous draft. However, important contemporary issues like Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, queer studies, reparations, and intersectionality — all of which Florida leaders objected to — were removed from curriculum requirements and are no longer part of the AP exam.

Instead, those areas of study have been downgraded to be part of a list of options students can pursue for a mandatory research project. The College Board also added a new research project idea to that list that will certainly please the right: “Black conservatism.”

It has additionally been reported that the organization pulled names of multiple Black authors the state education officials had flagged as problematic, including many famous and pioneering Black scholars who wrote about critical race theory, the queer experience, and Black feminism. 

The College Board defended itself against criticism in a press release announcing the changes, claiming that the process of developing the framework “has operated independently from political pressure.”

DeSantis’ Ongoing Culture War

DeSantis’ attempts to influence the national curriculum of an AP course are just his latest in a much broader effort to control what is and is not taught in public schools.

Just one day before the College Board announced the revised course, the governor outlined what The New York Times described as “his most aggressive swing yet at the education establishment.”

Specifically, he proposed a massive overhaul to higher education in the state that would defund and eliminate diversity and equity programs, mandate courses on Western civilization, and reduce tenure protections that are essential to ensure professors have freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the effects of another law DeSantis signed last year are now just beginning to materialize. The policy, which went into effect this July, requires every school book to be age-appropriate, “free of pornography,” and “suited to student needs.” 

To follow those guidelines, school books have to be approved by a certified media specialist who has undergone specific training.

Notably, the law also states that teachers can be charged with third-degree felonies if they “knowingly or unknowingly” give students access to a book that the specialists say is harmful — meaning that they could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Last month, the state education department clarified that the rule does not just apply to school libraries, but also to any books a teacher keeps in their classroom too. 

Multiple outlets reported this week that records they obtained show at least two school districts have now directed teachers to either remove their books or hide them until review to avoid the possibility of going to jail.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Biden Announces Plan to End COVID Emergency in May

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The decision would drastically change the government’s long-standing pandemic response and shift Americans’ access to COVID-related services.


Emergency Declarations at an End

In a statement Monday, The White House announced that it would be ending the COVID national emergency and public health emergency declarations on May 11.

The move will entirely restructure the federal government’s response to the pandemic to treat it as endemic and upend policies that have been in place for the last three years. Although more than 500 people in the U.S. are still dying from COVID on average each day — which is around two times the number of daily deaths during a bad flu season — life has largely returned to normal.

Most Americans are vaccinated, and even President Joe Biden himself said the pandemic was “over” back in September. The new announcement comes in part as a response to resolutions Republicans brought to the House floor last week that would end the declarations immediately.

“An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,” the White House argued.

Lapses in Coverage and Care

Federal officials decided that a phase-out would make more sense because the U.S. has come to rely on several systems and benefits under the emergencies.

One of the most significant changes that will have the biggest impact on Americans in their day-to-day lives is access to COVID tests, treatments, and vaccines that have been free throughout the pandemic.

Once the emergencies end, a very complex wave of changes will take place that differs from person to person depending on their insurance — or lack thereof — and even possibly what state they live in.

Currently, people with private health insurance or Medicare coverage have been allowed eight free COVID tests a month and insurers had to cover those tests, even if they were administered out of network.

Once the emergency ends, some Americans will have to pay out of pocket, as well as for antiviral COVID treatments like Paxlovid. 

Notably, it has been reported that vaccines will still be included for all those people covered by both private and public insurance. That, however, may not be the case for those without insurance — a group that is also more likely to be the most affected by rising costs for tests and treatments.

Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told The Washington Post that when the emergency declarations end, states that opted to provide Medicaid coverage for tests, treatments, and shots will lose the federal funds that matched costs at 100%.

“To me, that’s the biggest issue for the general public to think about,” she said. “The uninsured and underinsured have no guaranteed access to covid vaccines, tests or treatments.”

When it comes to vaccines, those costs could be significant. Moderna and Pfizer have both said they might charge as much as $130 per dose of vaccine once the federal government stops paying and the shots are transitioned to the private market. That figure is nearly quadruple what federal offices have paid for the doses.

The shift to the private market could happen fairly soon, especially because Republicans have refused Biden’s request that they put billions of dollars towards additional free COVID testing and shots to extend those efforts.

There could also be a spike in the number of uninsured or underinsured Americans because the $1.7 trillion spending bill passed last year ends a rule that banned states from kicking people off Medicaid, leaving millions at risk of losing coverage.

Other Possible Outcomes

Ending the declarations could also set up a battle around immigration because the Biden administration has said the move will bring an end to Title 42 — the Trump-era public health measure that placed restrictions on border crossings and other migrant policies.

Biden has previously tried to cut the program, but the Supreme Court kept it in place. House Republicans rejected the White House’s claim that the program would be terminated, arguing it is not tied to the public health emergency.

Beyond that, the termination of the declarations would require health providers to make numerous adjustments because many of the flexibilities they were allowed in a number of areas would be cut. 

As a result, the administration says a phase-out of those policies over the next few months is necessary, arguing that hospitals and nursing homes “will be plunged into chaos” if they are cut immediately. House Republicans, however, are insistent on moving forward their legislation that would do just that, though the Democratic-controlled Senate could block their proposals.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Conservatives are Mad at “Woke” Xbox for Minor Climate-Related Updates

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The fury comes after Xbox announced it was slightly altering existing consoles to better utilize and save energy.


Same War, New Battlefield

Mere days after M&M canceled their “spokescandies” due to backlash from the right, led largely by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, conservatives have found a new front for their ongoing culture war: Xbox.

Carlson spent months complaining that small character redesigns were “woke” because they made the animated anthropomorphized M&M’s — in his own words — “less sexy.” His campaign finally proved successful on Monday when the company announced it would be doing away with the spokescandies and replacing them with actress Maya Rudolph.

Conservatives, now facing a sudden dearth of non-issues to complain about, quickly found a new issue to rage against. Xbox announced in a blog post earlier this month that it is making minor updates to lower its environmental impact as part of an effort to reach Microsoft’s goal of being carbon-negative by 2030.

Now, instead of having an Xbox wake up to update games, apps, and software during random times of the night, it will do that at a time of night when a user’s local energy grid is generating the most power it can from renewable sources. 

Xbox also said it would automatically update some older consoles to a power-saving mode that aims to reduce electricity consumption when it is turned off — a feature that is already the default on newer consoles.

According to The Verge, the only difference for users is that an Xbox in power-saving mode takes around 15 seconds to boot up instead of doing so immediately as the console does in “sleep” mode. The change is a small price to pay for what the outlet described as “significant” energy savings.

Xbox Under Fire

To many leading conservative voices, the minimal shifts were just another example of “woke” culture. 

While discussing M&M’s spokescandies Tuesday morning, “Fox and Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt brought up Xbox’s new changes with Fox radio host Jimmy Failla.

“So Xbox has also announced that they’re going woke too, you know, because of climate change,” Earhardt said.

“I mean, it’s crazy what they’re doing, but we understand what this is. It’s not that it’s actually going to offset emissions, okay — the level of reduction is infinitesimal,”  Failla claimed, without evidence. “But they’re trying to recruit your kids into climate politics at an earlier age; make them climate conscious now.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think of that — you’re right, they’re going after the children,” Earhardt agreed, despite the fact that internal data from Microsoft shows just around 10% of Xbox owners are under the age of 18.

Other prominent conservatives also did their part to bait Americans into anger on social media, including America’s Foundation, which posted a tweet stating that “the woke brigade is after video games.”

The post linked an article from the right-wing website TheBlaze, which asserted that “Xbox will force gamers to power down to fight climate change.”  That, however, is false — Xbox has said users can switch back and change the settings any time they want

Still, top lawmakers continued to share the article and spread its false claims, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.).

“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” he wrote in the post, which was flagged by Twitter and given an “added context” warning.

The same warning, however, was not placed in a very similar post by Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tx.), who also shared the article.

“They want to take your guns. They want to take your gas stoves. And now they want to take your Xbox. What’s next?” he wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Daily Beast) (VICE)

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