Lessons in Unemployment Insurance from the Pandemic

OpportunityAs the coronavirus laid bare the inequalities in our community, unemployment insurance has become a critical resource. Unemployment insurance, also known as unemployment benefits, provides cash benefits to eligible workers that lose employment through no fault of their own.

Changes to unemployment benefits due to COVID-19

When the pandemic began, adjustments were made to the unemployment insurance program to better support Nebraskans in the wake of lost employment and reduced hours. Support was extended to Nebraskans previously ineligible, such as part-time and self-employed workers, as well as those without sufficient work history to qualify for traditional unemployment benefits.

CARES Act support for Nebraskans

The CARES Act provided an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits, as well as an additional $600 per week in compensation on top of a recipient’s usual calculated benefits. While the additional $600 per week in benefits expired on July 31, the Lost Wage Assistance program provided an additional $300 in benefits for Nebraskans who received at least $100 in unemployment benefits through September 5.

Additional support with Nebraska Governor’s Executive Order

In March, Governor Ricketts suspended certain requirements of the unemployment insurance program. These flexibilities included 

  • Providing unemployment benefits as soon as Nebraskans were eligible instead of requiring a “waiting week.” 
  • Ensuring that Nebraskans receive benefits without the unnecessary burden of engaging in work search requirements in the middle of a pandemic. 

Though the Governor had originally authorized these flexibilities through August 1, 2020, he revoked the flexibilities as of July 12, 2020. As a result, Nebraskans filing for unemployment insurance cannot receive benefits during their first week of eligibility and are required to engage in work search activities to continue to be eligible.

While the changes introduced by the CARES Act and the Governor’s executive orders are essential in a time of crisis — a crisis that continues — Nebraskans who are unemployed have long needed additional support.

Those eligible for unemployment benefits are only provided one-half of their average weekly wage, unless that amount would exceed one-half of the state average weekly wage. In that case, workers are restricted to receiving one-half of the state average weekly wage. Nebraskans receiving unemployment benefits would lose them if their period of unemployment lasts longer than 26 weeks.

Supporting Nebraskans beyond the pandemic

These changes introduced at the beginning of the pandemic show that it is necessary to ensure Nebraskans receive additional support, and Nebraska should permanently implement these changes.

Amendments to state statutes

State statutes can be amended to allow for

  • Benefits to be provided until Nebraskans can find work. 
  • Higher benefit payouts so that Nebraskans who are unemployed do not have to rely on a fraction of their usual paycheck to get by. By reducing the necessary earnings required to become eligible for unemployment benefits, Nebraska can expand benefits to more unemployed Nebraska workers.

Unemployment insurance can be a lifeline when hard times strike, but additional changes are necessary to ensure that it works for all Nebraskans.

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