With legislative hearings on how best to spend billions in federal aid set to resume on Thursday, top Democrats on Beacon Hill signaled this week that they had no plans to intervene to allocate funding to the hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers who lost access to expanded federal jobless benefits this week.
Three main emergency unemployment insurance programs expired on Sept. 6, leaving over 7 million people nationally and roughly 330,000 people in Massachusetts without access to the benefits that helped them navigate through the pandemic.
Gov. Charlie Baker's top labor official Secretary Rosalyn Acosta has described it as "falling off the cliff," and recently testified that the administration is doing all it can to connect people with jobs.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh wrote a letter in mid-August to House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden reminding Congress that ARPA funds could be used by states to continue some expanded benefit programs. The two Cabinet officials specifically mentioned the ability for states to continue providing additional weeks of assistance for the long-term unemployed and the special program for gig economy workers who don't traditional qualify for unemployment benefits.
The Washington Post, however, reported over the weekend that of the 24 states where federal benefits were maintained as long as possible, none indicated they had plans to use ARPA money to extend the benefits, or "indicated that a decision to do so rested with their state legislatures."
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law giving the Legislature control of the remaining $4.8 billion in APRA funds. State House News Service asked both House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka whether consideration had been given to using ARPA funding to continue expanded unemployment benefits beyond their Sept. 6 expiration.
"Public hearings about how to best spend American Rescue Plan Act funding are ongoing. We look forward to reviewing the feedback and insights gained through the process so that we may take the best course of action as our recovery continues," a spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka told the News Service.
A House spokeswoman offered a similar response: "Our Committees continue to review all uses of the American Rescue Plan Act as we carry out the public process to allocate the funds. Labor and workforce development have been among the topics already discussed in hearings with experts and the public, and we expect those to remain priorities as the process continues."
Massachusetts posted a 4.9% unemployment rate in July and the federal government on Wednesday reported that the number of job openings in the U.S. rose by 749,000 to 10.9 million in late July, a number that labor statistics officials described as a "series high."