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Sen. Menendez: May jobs report surprise ‘isn't solace' to unemployed workers

Enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire this summer, even as millions of Americans remain unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now lawmakers are trying to figure out what to do next. 

As part of the CARES Act, lawmakers added an extra $600 per week to unemployment benefits, but that extra boost is currently scheduled to expire on July 31. 

“What I’m afraid of is that August 1 will come and we will have millions of Americans who just simply won’t have any pathway whatsoever,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). “You don’t wait until then to figure it out.”

Menendez spoke to Yahoo Finance ahead of Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia’s testimony on Capitol Hill, about unemployment insurance amid the pandemic.

“Our economy has turned the corner against the coronavirus,” said Scalia in his opening statement. “We celebrate it...not because we think the job is done, but because we know the situation has begun to improve more robustly and earlier than had been expected.”

Some Republicans in Washington have pointed to the May jobs report — which showed the economy unexpectedly added 2.5 million jobs — as reason to wait and see what happens before pushing ahead with additional relief measures.

But Democrats argue it’s not the time to take away benefits keeping many Americans afloat. "This crisis will go on a lot longer if the Trump administration and Senate Republicans start yanking out these key pillars of economic support like supercharged unemployment benefits," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the hearing.

Menendez told Yahoo Finance he’s still worried about the millions of people who can’t find work, despite the good news in the May jobs report.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 04: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (L) leaves with an aide after a vote at the U.S. Capitol May 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate came back in session today for the first time since March 25 with enhanced precautions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“The fact that some states are beginning to reopen doesn’t guarantee employment. If you’re among the 13.3% who are unemployed, that isn’t solace to you. If you are among the 17.6% of Latinos who are unemployed, that isn’t solace to you. If you are among the 16.8% of African-Americans who are unemployed, that isn’t solace to you,” said Menendez.

Many Republicans don’t want to extend the extra $600 a week going forward, saying it incentivizes workers to stay home instead of going back to work. 

“One thing we’ve learned is how poorly targeted the $600 was, as it appears most recipients are being paid more on UI than they were when working,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in the hearing on Tuesday.  

Grassley went on to say unemployment insurance is “not the only game in town.” 

“The CARES Act includes many policies to help those affected by the pandemic including the employee retention tax credit, the Paycheck Protection Program, direct payments to individuals, and other policies designed to help businesses reopen and people to return to work,” said Grassley.

One idea GOP lawmakers have floated as a possible alternative to the expanded unemployment benefits is a “Back-to-Work” bonus. Employees would get extra money each week on top of their regular paychecks, once they go back to work. 

“I certainly am open to thinking about that possibility,” said Menendez. “I’m not sure people will be fully offered jobs [by August 1], so the question is not ‘do we want people to go back to work or not?,’ of course we do. But when they’re not offered a job, when there are no standards to determine whether you can go back to a job that is offered to you safely -- then those are open questions.” 

A man walks by a career center storefront, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Lawrence, Mass. The U.S. unemployment rate fell unexpectedly in May to 13.3% — still on par with what the nation witnessed during the Great Depression — as states loosened their coronavirus lockdowns and businesses began recalling workers. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Menendez said the next round of coronavirus relief must also include funding for states and municipalities.

“We will have literally thousands of public safety employees, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, teachers and others laid off — which will only be a further drag on the economy,” said Menendez. “It would be the height of irony that at the end of the day, those who need it the most during this pandemic and any potential rebound of one in the future would be the ones that would be laid off.”

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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