Unemployment: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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John Oliver details the many obstacles that impede access to unemployment benefits – often by design – and why the entire system needs to be rethought. Connect with Last Week Tonight online... Subscribe to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel for more almost news as it almost happens: www.youtube.com/lastweektonight Find Last Week Tonight on Facebook like your mom would: www.facebook.com/lastweektonight Follow us on Twitter for news about jokes and jokes about news: www.twitter.com/lastweektonight Visit our official site for all that other stuff at once: www.hbo.com/lastweektonight

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Video Transcript:

Moving on our main story tonight concerns unemployment the thing that would absolutely happen to me if at t executives ever find out what i've been saying about them but on the other hand what are they going to do look it up online how with their internet plan and then what call someone using a t i think i'm fine unemployment can be a traumatic event for anyone Even puppets why isn't mommy at work today yesterday i lost my job and i'm not going to be working at least for a little while is it because elmo emma has too many toys oh no no baby none of this is your fault it's nobody's fault well well hold on there are we absolutely sure that it's not elmo's fault i don't know how much that plane costs But i do know that maintaining a crayon-colored liminal apartment where you live part-time with dorothy of pet fish might be a problem for your now one income family so it's not not your fault elmo but also quick shout out to elmo's mom there she's going through some but she still managed to get her hair up in two strand twists before she went to bed the night before She's taking care of herself and protecting those edges drop the routine may post a shelfie on the gram what are your holy grail products patent beauty shea moisture well you're still rocking at old school with a bottle of pink oil and a jar of jam i see you elmo's mom but even for the non-puppet population unemployment is an especially pertinent topic right now it's been almost Exactly a year since the pandemic hit and tens of millions of people lost their jobs many of whom foster unemployment insurance or unemployment our current system was created in the 1930s and the basic idea was like most insurance to gather funds particularly in the good times so that there'd be money available to disperse in bad times and to pay for all Of this states would tax employers the concept was enthusiastically promoted at the time with educational films like this to show how job insurance works let's introduce steve a louisiana worker who has just lost his job now each week the letter carrier brings steve a check for half the normal weekly wage he used to earn the maximum is 15 the Minimum is five dollars or three fourths of his earnings job insurance this is the way the state of louisiana is doing its part in the nationwide crusade against unemployment fear and insecurity yes and a boy steve that newsreel of course from the makers of such classics as amelia earhart the woman who will never die and How to fight the nazis even though given this era's prevalent anti-semitism you most likely agree with a lot of what they're saying but unemployment wasn't just created to save our nation's steves from fear and insecurity economists generally agree that unemployment insurance is actually one of the most effective policies for recovering from a recession which does make sense because When you give the unemployed money they tend not to hoard it offshore in the caymans they spend it on they need in fact analysis from past recession shows that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits boosted economy-wide spending by as much as two dollars so it's a vital social safety net and has massive macroeconomic benefits but despite that Over the years our system has badly broken down something that became painfully clear this time last year when it was overwhelmed by new claims we featured stories on this show of people having to call 50 times a day just to make an unemployment claim but that was the tip of the iceberg kentucky residents poured into the capital for their first chance to get an in-person meeting at a pop-up Unemployment office since the pandemic began brianna glass applied three months ago and is still having trouble getting payments she stood in line yesterday just days after giving birth i mean i've called i've emailed i did everything i possibly could and still nothing holy waiting in line for unemployment just after giving birth Is already appalling but the very phrase pop-up unemployment office is truly alarming much like emergency crematorium or elephant forceps it suggests things have gone terribly wrong and are about to get significantly worse now some of last year's chaos was because state antiquated systems were simply overwhelmed but It is a mistake to think of this merely as a technological problem because the system underneath that shitty technology has been broken for years now and sometimes deliberately a quick way to measure the health of a state system is through its recipiency rates that is basically the percentage of unemployed people that actually receive benefits now it will never be a hundred percent in This country because rightly or wrongly not everyone out of work is eligible generally only those who are laid off are and that is just over half of the unemployed the rest like those fresh out of school or who quit voluntarily or who were fired are generally not covered that is why experts say that under our current system a good rule of thumb is that a state's Recipiency rate should be around 50 the problem is nationally even before this pandemic we were at just 28 and in some states like north carolina and florida it was around 10 percent just think about what that means out of every 10 unemployed people in those states only one is actually receiving benefits if you boarded an airplane and learned That only one in 10 seats had an oxygen mask you would wonder who designed this system why did they make it this way and how do i get the out of here right now so given that tonight let's look at our current unemployment system and the first thing to know is it is not one system from the very start states were given huge latitude in running their Unemployment programs meaning that we essentially have 53 completely different systems one for each state plus dc puerto rico and the virgin islands and not only is that very inefficient it means the level of benefits vary wildly massachusetts pays the most up to twelve hundred thirty four dollars a week florida's maximum 275 dollars a week that is a hell of a difference and it's Something that people might want to factor in if they're considering moving somewhere well the climate seems nicer and the schools do seem decent but before i go let me just google if i lose my job will this state let me starve and it's not just where you live that determines your benefits it also matters what you do because many part-time workers plus Independent contractors and gig workers typically don't qualify for unemployment which is absurd given that those jobs make up a significant portion of our modern workforce and incidentally black workers are over-represented in those type of jobs just as they're over-represented in the states with the least generous benefits which might explain why black workers are more likely to be unemployed but Less likely to get unemployment benefits and inequity was baked into the system from the very beginning in the 1930s agricultural and domestic workers were initially purposely excluded meaning that 65 of black workers weren't covered by the program it seems in the us you can basically point to anything ask how is that racist and get a specific historical answer Freeways demolished black communities mickey mouse based on minstrel shows this toddler well his name is kendall so it's only a matter of time the point is for myriad reasons you may not be able to get unemployment and even if you do get it in many states it might not be enough to live on that is something the federal government seem to basically acknowledge was a problem last year when It suddenly temporarily expanded unemployment to cover more workers and boosted benefits by 600 across the board so how did our system get this shitty and whose fault is it is it elmo's the answer is not definitely no yet but the truth is a lot of the system shortcomings were the result of deliberate choices for one remember businesses fund Unemployment insurance through taxes that go into state trust funds and after the last financial crisis drains those funds states needed to restore them but rather than do the sensible thing raise taxes to get more money coming in many opted instead just to cut benefits and make them harder to get and as they did this some in the national media cheered them on like sentient plantation wedding at Laura ingram it's simple human nature that people are a little less motivated as long as there's a check coming in you know what my mom used to say god rest her soul when you're hungry you'll figure out a way to eat right hunger uh brings drive hunger for opportunity hunger for uh paycheck hunger for uh actual food hunger for a lifestyle a way of life boy you find it when There's no helping hand wow when you're hungry you'll figure out a way to eat well sometimes laura the problem is sometimes not and then it's a tragedy there's a reason that famines aren't generally referred to as a lack of can-do attitude and that kind of rhetoric has become pretty popular your most racist uncle has undoubtedly said something similar Probably to a waitress at red lobster completely ruining mother's day and that speaks to the kind of attitudes toward the unemployed ranging from simmering contempt to a callous disregard that lie beneath many states aggressive policy changes over the past decade starting in 2012 tennessee passed laws making the process to apply far more difficult one justification being that somehow Loads of people ineligible for benefits were still getting them which is complete nonsense but something that the lieutenant governor back then ron ramsey certainly believed if you were fired from your job for just calls maybe even for stealing from your employer or chronic absenteeism you shouldn't be able to draw unemployment you don't get unemployment insurance if you're fired for calls now The law says they're not supposed to but buddy let me assure you nine times out of ten they get their workers calling or whether they're unemployment i can assure you that's nine times out of ten i don't know about that okay that was a ron ramsey blanket statement there but there are plenty of examples that they get oh yeah don't worry that's just a classic ron ramsey blanket statement and you Know you're in good hands when a government official lies enough to warrant a trademark now ramsay also argued for drug testing the unemployed saying i don't think we need to be supporting that lifestyle with government money which is not just an obvious attempt to stigmatize it also ignores that drugs are actually helpful in some jobs like for instance this one how do you think i talk this Fast about things this depressing what do you even think this white void is made out of i'm surrounded by weapons grade cocaine and it wasn't just tennessee lots of states put in new owners requirements to make sure that people getting benefits deserved them for instance nebraska started requiring five work search activities per week which could include attending a resume writing class or Taking a civil service exam but at least two of which had to be applications for suitable work but if there aren't two suitable work opportunities for you to apply for that week you're out of luck and the problem is each additional requirement like that increases the chances that someone's going to make a mistake or fail to check a box and get denied benefits that they need And as they were doing this states were also aggressively targeting fraud which isn't in itself a bad idea states do lose money to fraud before the pandemic hit it wasn't honestly a lot an average of three percent but that actually surged last year when organized criminals targeted unemployment programs and california alone said it lost 11 billion dollars but the thing is you Have to be very precise in how you go after fraud because if a claim is wrongly flagged it can be significantly delayed and innocent people then get hurt that is something that kentucky's governor recently found when he shared what he clearly thought was a pretty flagrant example we had somebody apply for unemployment For tupac shakur here in kentucky and that person probably thought they were being funny they probably did except for the fact that because of them we've got to go through so many other claims okay he made a very confident public example of that because he knew no one could be called tupac shakur right that is just not a name that people have except of course famously for this guy but we all know He's living in the falkland islands right now no one else could have that name it's absolutely impossible i think you know what's coming next now somebody an apology tonight um you know last night i spent a little bit of time talking about fraudulent claims holding us up and mentioned an individual that had filed in the name of tupac shakur i didn't know um and it's my fault Uh that we have a kentuckian who goes by malik whose name is tupac shakur i talked to him on the phone today i apologized yeah yeah i bet you did and i will say that is just further proof that nothing good can ever come from a middle-aged white man knowing anything about rap period we just can't handle it that's how you get macklemore and if you're thinking hey what's so bad about Macklemore you are very much part of the problem here and some mistakes happened on a much bigger scale michigan rolled out a new system in 2013 which flagged tens of thousands of cases for fraud unfortunately a review four years later found it had a 70 percent error rate meaning they falsely accused more than 40 000 people of fraudulently claiming benefits and had been wrongfully recouping massive amounts of money from many of them and the problem with the word recoup there is it sounds kind of bloodless until you realize that those people were required to repay their benefits at a 400 penalty which is just brutal it's like a hospital mistakenly thinking that a patient wrote A bad check and deciding to recoup their hip replacement hey i didn't do anything wrong and i really needed that and if you want to see how all of this poor technology deep benefit cuts and absurd eligibility requirements can come together to break a vital social program look no further than florida america's vestigial tale florida's previous Governor and slender man understudy rick scott took a hatchet to the states program while in power when he was sworn in employers that year paid an average of 319 dollars per employee in unemployment taxes by the time he left office they were paying just 50 per employee the lowest in the country and less than one-fifth the national average and to balance those cuts out as scott Proudly told a conference of young republicans in 2019 he found ways to keep a lot of floridians off unemployment about 22 million people live in in florida how many people today get just uh throw out a guess how many people when i left office were on unemployment benefits 10 million won anybody else 61 000. Wow that is some nervous applause even in that room you can feel people thinking wait 61 000 out of 22 million oh that feels way too low is what he did terrible are we all terrible oh never mind we're clapping now okay i do feel better when we clap now to achieve those numbers scott employed all the tactics you've seen florida started requiring that People document contacts with five employers per week reduced total benefits by slashing the number of weeks you could receive them and throwing some extra obstacles like requiring applicants to complete a 45 question skills assessment testing their reading math and research skills a policy so clearly meant to impede access the department of labor's civil rights Division determined it violated federal non-discrimination law the state also forced everyone to file online and rolled out an expensive new claim system which was immediately plagued with glitches and despite all rick scott's reassurances at the time that they would be fixed they pretty clearly weren't because the system crashed so badly last year they had to suddenly shift to paper Applications which in the middle of a pandemic brought a whole different set of problems it was near bedlam at the john f kennedy library in hialeah a crowd in uncomfortably close quarters shoved its way forward with people desperate to get their hands on one of these an application for unemployment benefits i am so scared what's going on i'm scared for my life just for an Application yeah i'm scared for your life too just watching that and it's a testament to both this pandemic and florida's ridiculous system that i feel the same white knuckle terror watching people line up for unemployment applications as i do when watching a daredevil jump a motorcycle over a row of buses although to be honest it's probably only a matter of time Before florida makes bus jumping a requirement for applying for unemployment there too and while you could argue that this was just incompetence you could also argue it was completely deliberate many floridians actually suggested that last year one of whom was rick scott's successor i think the goal was for whoever designed it was let's put as Many kind of pointless roadblocks along the way so people just say oh the hell with it i'm not going to do that but i think definitely in terms of how it was internally constructed you know it was definitely done in a way to uh lead to the least number of of claims being paid out wow i gotta say it's kind of weird to hear this Accurately critique this it'd be like hearing twitter really needs to take care of its nazi problem from mark zuckerberg sure in isolation you're making a good point you just happen to be a fundamentally flawed messenger because before you give desantis too much credit there it is worth knowing that a state investigation found that auditors had flagged problems with Florida's system in 2015 2016 and 2019 and neither the scots nor desantis administrations fixed the problems and florida's deep and deliberate neglect of its unemployment system caused people there real pain if the unemployment claim finally went through we would be able to pay our bills no problem but we tried to file for unemployment online and It was an absolute nightmare i constantly have a nauseous feeling in my stomach i try to distract myself from it but especially at night i'm sorry i can't even put into words i'm just i don't want emmitt to see me upset i've been fighting really hard to hold it together that's terrible and the infuriating thing is how completely preventable it Is we could help her it'd be better for her it'd actually be better for the broader economy and yet we are actively choosing not to do it which is a disgrace so how can we fix this going forward well first there can no longer be any argument that our current system is broken again the government's actions last year raising payments And scrambling to make sure that the system covered more workers is a pretty public admission that it was so now we have to fix it in the very short term states need funding to upgrade their broken technology they also need to remove a lot of the stupid obstacles that prevent applicants who need help from getting it but in the long term we need some big Changes here many experts agree if the u.s got a do-over it'd be much better to go with one federal system than 53 separate ones so we should probably do that among other things that would stop states from being able to slash their programs in the name of being pro-business and engaging in a race to the bottom on taxes but if we are not going to federalize and at The moment it seems like we're not congress should at the very least be setting a basic standard for unemployment benefits that states cannot drop below all of which is really just a long way of saying that we need to take all of the energy that we have been pouring in to making sure that people who don't deserve payments don't get them and put at least as much energy into Making sure that people who really need them do and to not make big changes after the flaws of this system have been so brutally exposed over the last year would be unforgivable because if we don't fix it we have absolutely nobody to blame but ourselves and possibly elmo i'm not sure exactly how but the whole thing does somehow still seem like his fault

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