- Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
- Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
- Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”
Unemployment Numbers Spike
Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.
According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.
As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.
Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.
Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.
That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.
But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year.
However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.
Inmate Unemployment Fraud
Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.
On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”
According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.
In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.
In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.
In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.
As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.
However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.
In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so.
Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.
However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.
The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.
Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.”
These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.
As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today)
Amazon Backs GOP Bill to Legalize Marijuana in Effort to Ramp Up Lobbying
The proposal is the first Republican-sponsored marijuana bill Amazon has backed since the company first began lobbying for legalization last summer.
Amazon Endorses States Reform Act
Amazon announced Tuesday that it is endorsing a Republican-backed proposal to legalize marijuana.
The move comes as the e-commerce giant has ramped up its efforts to legalize cannabis on the federal level since it came out in support of the idea last summer. Amazon argues that the move would remove hiring barriers — which disproportionately impact people of color — and, in turn, could increase the company’s application pool and boost employee retention.
The company has previously backed similar proposals by forward by Democrats, but Tuesday’s announcement marks the first time Amazon has put its support behind a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at addressing the issue.
The legislation, called the States Reform Act, was authored by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Among other measures, it would remove cannabis as a Schedule I substance, allow states to create their own laws, impose an excise tax, and regulate the drug in a similar fashion to alcohol.
While Mace’s bill is fundamentally very similar to others put forth by Democrats, by proposing it herself, the Republican hopes to rally other members of her party around the idea that legalization is pro-business, pro-state’s rights, and anti-big government.
The measure has already received support from the highly influential conservative group, American’s for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers.
Mace and Amazon have painted the company’s endorsement as a game-changer for garnering more support — both from other large corporations and politicians on either side of the aisle. Mace specifically told reporters she believes Amazon’s decision will push other companies to do the same. If more major corporations like Amazon back the effort, other Republicans may be more persuaded to jump on board.
That sentiment was echoed by Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, who said in an interview with The Washington Post that the company was “particularly excited by Congresswoman Mace’s bill” because “it shows that there’s bipartisan support for this issue.”
Huseman also emphasized that, as part of its decision to back her bill, Amazon will use its powerful influence in Washington to try and drum up bipartisan support.
“We are talking with members of both parties, including Republicans, about why we think this is the right thing to do, especially from the standpoint of a major employer and what this means for our business and our employees and broadening the employee base,” he continued.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Forbes) (Marijuana Moment)
CDC Data Shows Booster Shots Provide Effective Protection Against Omicron
Public health experts have encouraged Americans to get boosted to protect themselves against the omicron variant, but less than 40% of fully vaccinated people who are eligible for their third shot have received it.
A First Glimpse of Official Data on Boosters and Omicron
COVID-19 booster shots are effective at preventing Americans from contracting omicron and protecting those who do become infected from severe illness, according to three reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Friday.
The reports mark the first real-world data regarding the highly infectious variant and how it has impacted the U.S.
One of the CDC reports, which studied data from 25 state and local health departments, found that there were 149 cases per 100,000 people among those had been boosted on average each week.
In comparison, the figure was 255 cases per 100,000 people in Americans who had only received two shots.
Another study that looked at nearly 88,000 hospitalizations in 10 states found that the third doses were 90% effective at preventing hospitalization.
By contrast, those who received just two shots were only 57% protected against hospitalization by the time they were eligible for a booster six months after their second dose.
Additionally, the same report also found that the boosters were 82% effective at preventing visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers, a marked increase from the 38% efficacy for those who were six months out from their two-shot regime and had not yet received a third.
Low Booster Shot Vaccination Rates
Public health officials hope that the new data will urge more Americans to get their booster shots.
Since the emergence of omicron, experts and leading political figures have renewed their efforts to encourage people to get their third shots, arguing they are the best form of protection.
The CDC currently recommends that everyone 12 and older get a booster shot five months after their second shot of Pfizer and Moderna or two months after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Still, in the U.S., less than 40% of fully vaccinated individuals eligible for a third shot have gotten one.
While COVID cases in the country have begun to drop over the past several days from their peak of over 800,000 average daily infections, the figures are still nearly triple those seen in the largest previous surges.
Hospitalizations have also slowly begun to level out over the last week in places that were hit first, such as New York City and Boston, but medical resources still remain strained in many parts of the country that experienced later surges and have not yet seen cases slow.
Some experts predict that the U.S. will see a sharp decline in omicron cases, as experienced in South Africa and Britain. Still, they urge American’s to get boosted to ensure their continued protection from the variant, as well as other strains that will emerge.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN) (The New York Times)
California Bill Would Allow Kids 12 and Up to Get Vaccinated Without Parental Consent
Nearly one million California teens and preteens between the ages of 12 and 17 are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
State Senator Proposes Legislation
Legislation proposed in California on Thursday would allow children age 12 and up to get vaccinated without parental consent.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Bill 866 in the hope it could boost vaccination rates among teenagers. According to Wiener, nearly one million kids aged 12- to 17-years old remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 in the state of California.
“Unvaccinated teens are at risk, put others at risk & make schools less safe,” Wiener tweeted. “They often can’t work, participate in sports, or go to friends’ homes.”
“Many want to get vaccinated but parents won’t let them or aren’t making the time to take them. Teens shouldn’t have to rely on parents’ views & availability to protect themselves from a deadly virus.”
Currently, teens in California can receive vaccines for human papillomavirus and hepatitis B without parental consent. They can also make other reproductive or mental healthcare choices without a guardian signing off. Wiener argues that their medical autonomy should expand to all vaccines, especially during a pandemic that has already killed roughly 78,000 Californians.
Vaccine Consent Across the U.S.
“Teens shouldn’t have to plot, scheme or fight with their parents to get a vaccine,” he said. “They should simply be able to walk in & get vaccinated like anyone else.”
Bill 866 would allow any kids ages 12 and up to receive any vaccine approved or granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, Pfizer’s COVID vaccine has been fully approved by the FDA for those 16 and older. It has received emergency authorization for ages five through 15.
Across the United States, vaccine consent ages vary. While the vast majority of states require parental approval for minors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, kids as young as 11 can get the jab on their own in Washington, D.C. In Alabama, kids can receive it without parental consent at 14, in Oregon at 15, and in Rhode Island and South Carolina at 16. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, providers can waive consent in certain cases in Arkansas, Idaho, Washington, and Tennesee.
In October, California became the first state to announce plans to require that students receive the COVID-19 vaccine to attend class. The mandate has yet to take effect, but under the guidelines, students will be “required to be vaccinated for in person learning starting the term following FDA full approval of the vaccine for their grade span.”
In other words, once the FDA gives a vaccine full approval for those aged 12 and up, it will be required the following session for kids in grades 7-12. Once it does so for kids as young as five, the same process will happen for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. There will also be room for exemptions from the mandate.
The Fight to Vaccinate California
This week, a group of California state legislators formed a Vaccine Work Group in order to boost public health policies in the state. Wiener is among the several members who are “examining data, hearing from experts, and engaging stakeholders to determine the best approaches to promote vaccines that have been proven to reduce serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.”
“Vaccines protect not only individuals but also whole communities when almost everyone is vaccinated at schools, workplaces and businesses, and safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have already prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said in a press release. “Public safety is a paramount duty of government, and I am proud to join a talented group of legislators in the pro-science Vaccine Work Group who want to end this disastrous pandemic and protect Californians from death and disability by preventable diseases.”
While vaccine policies have been a divisive subject nationwide, including in California, state politicians and leaders are hopeful public health initiatives will prevail.
“If we allow disinformation to drive our state policy making we will not only see more Americans needlessly suffer and die, but we will sacrifice the long term stability of our society having effectively abandoned the idea that we all must work together to protect each other in times of crisis.” Catherine Flores Martin, the Executive Director of the California Immunization Coalition, added.