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How the pandemic could permanently change unemployment benefits

Yahoo Finance's Jessica Smith joins the Yahoo Finance Live panel to discuss her interview with Senator Wyden (D-OR) and how the pandemic could permanently change unemployment benefits.

Video Transcript

- Well, sticking with the issue of unemployment, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of those senators who demanded reform to the unemployment system for a while now, certainly those calls for change elevated by what's playing out right now. Let's bring in Jessica Smith, who spoke with the Senator, Jess, what what did he have to say in light of what we're seeing right now and especially the delay in the fiscal health?

JESSICA SMITH: Right. Well, Senator Wyden says that the pandemic really highlighted problems with the way the US handles unemployment benefits. And he's not alone. I talked to several experts who said the same thing. They say now is the time for long-term reform. Wyden, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee said, if Democrats manage to control the Senate, when both of those races in Georgia, and he becomes the chairman, this is going to be one of his top priorities.

First, he says you have to update the technology. You'll remember back in the spring, when we saw those record waves of jobless claims, the systems were overwhelmed. They crashed. People had to wait for weeks, even months to get their benefits.

So that's something they want to tackle first. And there is bipartisan support for that idea. Next, there are some people who say that all the chaos throughout the pandemic shows that the federal government should just take it over. There should be one federalized system, instead of this patchwork of programs from state to state.

That idea is going to face some tough, tough opposition in Congress. And Wyden says it's time to consider it, but he's not supporting that idea at this point. He also does want to make gig workers eligible for unemployment insurance.

The CARES Act did have a program that allowed gig workers and other independent contractors to get unemployment benefits. And now there are some people who say that change or something similar needs to be made permanent. Finally, there is a push to expand benefits to create a floor that makes benefits from state to state more generous and will last longer. Wyden told me he knows that all of this is going to be difficult, because you just have to look at the fight over that $600 boost during in the CARES Act for unemployment insurance. Let's watch.

RON WYDEN: I have no illusions about the challenge of trying to get support across the aisle. I always try to work in a bipartisan way, but I want it clearer that the history here is that we had to battle senior veteran Republicans every step of the way from the White House on.

JESSICA SMITH: I did try to get a comment or an interview from Senator Chuck Grassley. He is the top Republican, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, but his office did not make him available. Akiko.