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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

How ending federal pandemic unemployment programs could impact Black Hoosiers

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In April 2020, when Indiana’s unemployment rate hit a record high of 16.9%, Tamarria Fernandez’s food service job was among the casualties.

Fernandez, a cafeteria worker at a local charter school, was laid off. She was on unemployment through July but eventually got the same job back.

Her family’s saving grace for those few months, Fernandez said, was the increased unemployment benefits, including an extra $300 on top of the normal payment and an extension to the normal 26-week period insurance lasts.

Fernandez, 43, said typical unemployment insurance wouldn’t have covered bills, groceries and rent, which is $540 at the apartment where she lives with her husband.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb opted out of federal pandemic unemployment assistance programs, which will end June 19. Two organizations, including Indiana Legal Services, filed a joint lawsuit to stop the move.

Along with the extra $300 and extended window for benefits, federal programs provide insurance to people who normally don’t qualify (the self-employed, for example).

Holcomb’s reasoning was straightforward: He wants more people working.

“There are help wanted signs posted all over Indiana, and while our economy took a hit last year, it is roaring like an Indy 500 race car engine now,” he said in a statement announcing the changes. “I am hearing from multiple sector employers that they want and need to hire more Hoosiers to grow.”

Jessica Fraser, director of the Indiana Institute for Working Families, doesn’t buy it.

The state’s preliminary unemployment rate was 3.9% in April, the most recent month data was available. That number dropped or held steady throughout the prior 12 months. The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the population that is either working or looking for work — has increased slightly over the last year, from 61.2% to 63.1%.

Those statistics and other research make Fraser believe most of the people receiving unemployment benefits right now are in a medically high-risk group (or take care of someone who is), or there are other barriers such as child care and jobs that don’t offer good enough wages.

One explanation Fraser won’t entertain is that people don’t work because they’re just lazy.

“It’s really discouraging,” she said of the trope often leveled against people who are unemployed. “I think it’s dehumanizing to people who work hard for very low wages.”

The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimates canceling federal unemployment benefits will affect about 286,000 people and cost a little more than $1 billion in funds that could otherwise circulate in Indiana’s economy.

Louis Vurgess, who attended a recent rally with the Indiana Poor People’s Campaign, said the governor’s decision to end federal unemployment help adds one more thing to the list of reasons people have to “continue to fight and make sure everyone lives.”

Vurgess, 75, has a long history of advocating for workers and the poor. He helped Rev. William Barber II bring Moral Mondays to Indiana in 2014 to bring attention to issues such as voting rights and cuts to social programs.

People will be forced back into low-wage jobs, Vurgess said, which means some will have to decide between paying for rent, medication, groceries and other needs.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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