News & Politics

Senate Republicans Want to Force the Unemployed to Work For Free

Along with efforts to drug-test the unemployed and deny benefits to those without high school diplomas, Republicans now want to make "volunteer" work a requirement.

 In recent months, Florida and South Carolina have talked about forcing people to "volunteer" for their unemployment insurance benefits, only to be told it was against federal law. Now, Senate Republicans want to change federal law to allow states to pass such laws but to require all long-term unemployed people to "volunteer" 20 hours a week to continue receiving benefits, with an additional bill introduced by North Carolina's Richard Burr calling for them to spend 20 hours a week looking for work. Those requirements could be added to Republican efforts to allow drug testing requirements and to deny unemployment insurance to people who don't have high school diplomas.

The number of job-seekers for every available job just dipped below 4 to 1 for the first time in nearly three years. There are still simply no jobs for more than two out of three people looking for jobs. Job-seekers receiving unemployment insurance benefits spend more timelooking for work and are more likely to have looked for work through five out of six different methods than people not receiving benefits. A law requiring them to spend 20 hours a week looking for work is nothing but an insult to people who are already searching desperately; making it a requirement would likely add a reporting burden that would either detract from their search or force them to spend time beyond their active job searching.

Forcing them to spend 20 hours a week "volunteering" additionally takes time people need for the very hard work of keeping their heads above water on limited means. And of course, creating an involuntary volunteer workforce is no kind of incentive to job-creation—why would any organization being provided free labor by the government ever create a job?

The are basically two reasons for measures like this. First,

"This proposal is very much about 'welfarizing' federal unemployment insurance benefits," said George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. Wentworth noted that the bill borrows language from the 1996 welfare law.

That is, it reframes unemployment insurance as something other than an insurance program that exists for all of us and that we work for. Second, such measures simply punish and stigmatize people for being jobless at a time when there simply are not jobs in the economy for them. Because Republicans are mean-spirited like that.

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