Our governor and the majority of state legislators have lost sight of the purpose of the state’s unemployment system: to help workers laid off through no fault of their own. The Iowa House and Senate have passed unemployment bills that would reduce the maximum number of benefits from 26 weeks to 16 weeks and require laid-off workers to accept lower-paying jobs more quickly. The Senate version would also require a one-week waiting period for benefits.
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) worries that unscrupulous employers might lay off someone for a couple of weeks and then offer their same job back at significantly reduced wages. The threat of disqualification from benefits for refusing the “return to work” offer would leave the worker without a choice. Combined with the mandatory one-week waiting period, this could create additional financial hardship for workers. “We caution against changing the unemployment insurance system in ways that could harm vulnerable workers,” the ICC states in an action alert inviting Catholics to express their concerns to Iowa legislators
Iowa State Sen. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, made a poignant point about the effect of a one-week delay in benefits for a working parent unable to find a job in that timeframe. “As a father now of six kids, we all recognize how hard that is… to put food on the table.” Defending the change to Iowa’s unemployment system, Rep. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, said, “What we are proposing to do is to refocus unemployment on ‘re-employment,’ rather than just being a safety net” (Iowa Capital Dispatch, March 23, 2022).
The U.S. bishops’ statement “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life” (1996) states that “Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family and serve the common good.” The statement calls for the rights to “economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions.…” Does the unemployment bill respond to those criteria?
In her Condition of the State Address (Jan. 11, 2022), Gov. Kim Reynolds, while acknowledging but not specifying the reasons for Iowa’s persistent worker shortage, places blame on the government taking away “the need or desire to work.” She said the “safety net has become a hammock. Don’t mistake me; this isn’t the only cause. But it’s a growing problem, and it’s not just an economic one.”
She pointed out that work “gives us meaning and purpose,” a major tenet of Catholic Social Teaching. However, the governor sees a threat to the nobleness of work “when idleness is rewarded with enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks, when work begins to seem optional rather than fundamental ….”
What proof do we have that Iowans of working age are spending their days in hammocks instead of on the job? What were the specific reasons that 1,701 workers filed a claim for unemployment in the week that ended March 19? What factors led to the 19,782 claims for continued weeks of unemployment for that same timeframe?
How many two-parent households, in the midst of pandemic upheaval, chose to have one working parent remain at home permanently because of the physical and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on their families’ lives?
How many healthcare providers, teachers and other weary frontline workers opted for early retirement? How many working Iowans were among 9,402 people who have died of COVID-19 or the 853,000 who contracted the disease since the start of the pandemic (Iowa Department of Public Health), some of whom endure “long COVID-19” after-effects? How does age — 17.5% of Iowans are 65 and older — affect job openings? (U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts)
The Iowa Dispatch article states that amendments aimed at restoration of collective bargaining rights, increasing access to affordable housing, making it easier for people to find a job despite a criminal record, and raising minimum wage, failed. If the governor and majority of legislators seek to encourage workers, why don’t they offer incentives that serve the common good?
“Cutting benefits further, to force unemployed Iowans to go back to work for less is not the solution,” State Sen. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, says in her March 25 e-newsletter. “The proposed legislation will not solve the workforce crisis nor improve the lives of the unemployed.”
Please send a message to our Iowa legislators (https://iowacatholicconference.org/voter-voice/) to rescind this heartless unemployment bill. Help them to see clearly that our unemployment system must help not harm Iowa’s workers.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor