The runoff elections for U.S. Senate in Georgia on January 5, 2021 will determine control of the Senate and affect national policy across a wide range of areas. This fact sheet provides an overview of the likely impact of the Senate races on two key worker issues: access to unemployment benefits during the pandemic-induced recession, and raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour. The fact sheet presents data from the Century Foundation and the Economic Policy Institute on the impact on Georgia workers of senators’ policy positions on these issues.
If Senator David Perdue and Senator Kelly Loeffler are elected in January, pandemic unemployment insurance benefits are likely to be restored only to a very limited degree, if it all—and the federal minimum wage is likely to remain frozen at $7.25 per hour, as it has been since 2009. But if Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are elected to the Senate, jobless Georgians are likely to see unemployment benefits restored and extended for more of the pandemic-induced recession. And Georgia workers will be far more likely to see the federal minimum wage increased and gradually phased up to $15 an hour—the first increase in 11 years. The public should find out more about these and other issues critical to Georgians and ask the candidates to discuss their positions to better understand where they stand.
As the pandemic swept the nation in the spring, Congress approved expanded unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in the CARES Act—including an extra $600 per week to ensure that unemployed Georgians could actually pay their bills, since state UI benefits in Georgia and most of the country are very low.
When the $600 per week UI supplement expired in July, Senator Kelly Loeffler and Senator David Perdue sided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in refusing to extend it, causing UI benefits in Georgia to plummet to just $254 a week for the average unemployed worker—not nearly enough to allow those out of work to pay their bills and put food on the table.
Now, even those lower benefits are scheduled to end for many unemployed workers the day after Christmas. The Century Foundation projects that more than 330,000 Georgians will be cut off from this safety net and fall off a financial cliff, unless Congress acts to extend unemployment assistance. That figure includes nearly 147,000 Georgians receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides assistance to workers who are otherwise shut out of state unemployment benefits, such as gig workers, self-employed persons, church workers, and many part-time workers. It also includes more than 183,000 Georgians receiving Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which provides 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits for workers whose weeks of other jobless aid has run out. See Figure 2.
These are conservative projections and could end up being significantly worse for two reasons. First, Georgia’s PUA enrollment alone has remained nearly unchanged for the last three months, with net enrollment hovering at over 200,000. This indicates that employment prospects for gig workers, self-employed persons, church workers, and part-time workers—who are often underemployed—have not improved much at all recently. These working Georgians face a December 26 cutoff from possibly the only income they have left. Second, Georgia’s Department of Labor has yet to release all of its data on PEUC enrollment. Therefore, enrollment may be larger than projected.
Georgia Workers Facing Loss of CARES Act Unemployment Benefits on Dec. 26
In the past, Mitch McConnell, with the support of Senator Kelly Loeffler and Senator David Perdue, has called for restoring a lower $200 per week unemployment supplement, although they have refused to bring such a package to a vote or pass it.
Senators Perdue and Loeffler have been silent about the 330,000 Georgians now facing loss of their CARES Act unemployment benefits on December 26.
It is true that some of the unemployed Georgians losing their PEUC CARES Act benefits will be eligible for continued unemployment benefits under Georgia’s State Extended Benefits (EB) program. But EB is a poor substitute for PEUC because of its very restrictive eligibility rules. Only 600,000 jobless workers are on the program nationwide, and it has a number of roadblocks including a rule that excludes unemployed workers who were eligible for regular UI and PEUC, but who worked fewer than 20 weeks before losing their job.
Moreover, Georgia must pay the cost of EB benefits for as many as 13 weeks— not the federal government. Senators Perdue and Loeffler appear ready to saddle the state with the heavy cost of paying for those benefits.
Senate candidates Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have both called for extending unemployment benefits and restoring the $600 per week supplement. A Democratic majority in the Senate would be expected to act quickly to approve further pandemic relief, including restoring and extending unemployment benefits.
Perdue and Loeffler’s opposition to restoring the $600 per week unemployment supplement and silence about the 330,000 Georgians about to lose CARES Act unemployment benefits come as the pandemic-induced unemployment crisis is hitting Black Georgians much harder than whites. During the pandemic, Black workers have been significantly overrepresented among Georgians losing their jobs and filing for unemployment. In the latest data from October, Black workers made up 63% of workers newly losing their jobs, while they represent just 31% of Georgia’s workforce. And the number of Black workers filing unemployment claims is now 70% higher than that for all other workers combined. See Figure 3.
Source: Century Foundation analysis
This stark skew is indicative of persistent impediments that Black workers face in the labor market—including employment discrimination, unequal pay, and occupational segregation in industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality, tourism, entertainment, and other service sectors. These longstanding impediments are the reason that unemployment and underemployment among Black workers and other workers of color has often been double that of their white counterparts for decades.
If Senators Perdue and Loeffler are elected on January 5th and Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, the federal minimum wage is likely to remain frozen at $7.25 per hour. During his six years as majority leader, McConnell has consistently blocked any minimum wage increase from being considered or passed by the Senate.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the top corporate lobby groups opposed to raising the minimum wage, is spending millions to ensure that Senators Perdue and Loeffler keep their seats—so they and Mitch McConnell can continue blocking efforts to raise the minimum wage.
The midterm elections this week that handed Democrats control of the House and governorships of swing states showed that voters demanded action to protect workers and rebalance our economy, and provides an action agenda for new state and congressional leaders as we look towards 2020. While the Trump administration was calling the minimum wage a “terrible idea” and trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act, voters turned out for candidates and ballot measures that championed raising wages, expanding health care, and tackling other worker needs.
In Arkansas and Missouri, voters overwhelmingly approved minimum wage increases for nearly a million workers. In Illinois and Wisconsin, fast food workers went door to door to mobilize voters around $15 minimum wage and union rights, helping candidates who backed workers win these key governorships, and putting an end to the punitive reigns of Bruce Rauner and Scott Walker. Furthermore, Democrats running for Congress took back the House majority from Republicans by running on platforms anchored by $15 minimum wage and equal pay for equal work.
Voters turned out nationwide to defend health care for working families, backing candidates who championed the Affordable Care Act and approving Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives in Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah. Overtime pay in particular emerged as a key middle class issue. In Michigan, activists galvanized voters behind Gretchen Whitmer for governor by highlighting the deep opposition to overtime pay and the Republican legislature rollback of prevailing wages for construction workers. In Nevada, Steve Sisolak was elected governor by running ads calling for state action on minimum wage and overtime pay.
With voters demanding action for workers, what does the road ahead look like? In Congress, the House Democrats are expected to provide a badly needed brake on President Trump and his war on workers. Their majority could act quickly to pass $15 minimum wage, overtime pay restoration, and equal pay for equal work, highlighting the Senate Republicans and Trump administration stonewalling these important issues.
But the greatest room for change will still be in the states. Connecticut, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Minnesota, Nevada, Illinois, and Maine will have new progressive legislative majorities and governors, breaking years of gridlock and clearing the way for action on worker priorities like the minimum wage, paid sick days, and overtime pay. In other states where new progressive governors will still face conservative legislatures, there is still much they can do to begin delivering for workers. For starters, in states including Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, and Maine, governors can expand overtime pay on their own without need for legislative action, as Pennsylvania and Washington are already doing.
Through their labor agencies, governors across the nation can overhaul and rebuild vital worker protection systems that have seen years of neglect and defunding. These include programs such as wage enforcement, unemployment insurance, and worker health and safety. Governors also have significant economic footprints in the form of their state employment and contracting programs. As other governors are already doing, they can lead by example by extending protections like fair hiring rules and paid sick days, as well as prohibiting inquiry into salary history of state office employees and state contractor employees.
Similarly, they can adopt responsible contracting reforms for their state procurement systems modeled on the fair pay and safe workplaces executive order signed by President Obama last year. By discouraging state agencies from doing business with companies with history of employment and labor violations, or that impose forced arbitration on their employees, governors can ensure that state budgets support high road employers that treat their workers well. The midterm elections underscored that a vision for workers is one that can inspire voters, engage them in campaigns, and make them believe that those in office govern with their best interests at heart. It must be the agenda for action by new state and national leaders as we look towards 2020.
Tuesday’s stunning election results underscored the deep economic uncertainty and scarring felt by voters across America. Frustration with the status quo reached the boiling point, and where people had a chance to vote for what they thought was change – they took it. That’s as true of voter support for Donald Trump as it is of voters crossing party lines to approve four state ballot initiatives that raised the minimum wage for 2.3 million working Americans.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump won by dividing Americans and appealing to the worst impulses in people. His ugly campaign will have far-reaching consequences for the nation that we can’t even begin to tally. But many working-class voters were drawn to Trump because of their well-founded belief that the rules of our economy are rigged against them. Americans are working too hard for too little. They know that they should be sharing more in the profits of their employers, and they are frustrated that the economic recovery is not translating into better jobs.
There’s no better sign of that frustration than the minimum wage. Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage since 2009, and so this year voters in four states took matters into their own hands. The decisive wins demonstrated the breadth and depth of national support for action on wages. In Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington State, voters decisively backed minimum wage increases of $12 to $13.50 an hour. In red Arizona, voters in the City of Flagstaff also approved a $15 minimum wage, making it the first city outside of the coasts to join the Fight for $15.
In Maine and Flagstaff, voters also approved a gradual phase-out of the outdated and unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers – a give-away to the restaurant industry whose staying power is a testament to the lobbying clout of the “other NRA,” the National Restaurant Association. As the first state and city to get rid of the tipped wage in 30 years, these historic votes create momentum for the “One Fair Wage” movement calling for national action to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.
These ballot victories should be a wake-up call to Congress that voters are demanding bold action on the federal minimum wage and jobs, and workers have made clear that $15 is what they need to get by in all regions of the country. As leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, has warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”
Forty-three cities and 18 states have raised their minimum wages since the Fight for $15 launched four years ago – raising pay for 20 million workers. As Goldman Sachs analysts summarized earlier this year, “the economic literature has typically found no effect on employment” when the minimum wage has increased. State-of-the-art research shows that, unlike small minimum wage increases, $15 minimum wages raise pay for as many as one-in-three workers.
Federal action on the minimum wage would require Republican support, but fortunately there are already signs of cracks emerging in Republican opposition. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, whose opponent Ted Strickland challenged him for keeping the minimum wage low, announced last month that he is now open to an increase.
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was forced to abandon his opposition to the very existence of the minimum wage in the face of a challenge by Russ Feingold. And U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) became the first Republican to back a $15 minimum wage, explaining that “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Even president-elect Trump, who initially said that “wages were already too high,” changed his position to support a minimum wage increase.
Voters are right that our economy is rigged by the super-rich and corporate interests. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and our challenge and moral duty is to make sure it’s shared more equitably. If president-elect Trump really believes that too, he’ll work with Republicans and Democrats to put America’s workers and families first by raising pay and enacting the kinds of policies our elected leaders were clearly put in office to achieve.
Commentary by Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund. She served as Director of Public Policy for the national AFL-CIO, the Democratic National Committee’s American Majority Partnership director, and an attorney in private practice and the federal sector, representing workers in employment law matters. She is also a member of the board of the directors of the Coalition on Human Needs.
While Republicans continue to refuse to compromise on key issues like appointing a new Supreme Court Justice, there’s one Republican roadblock that’s beginning to crumble: opposition to raising the minimum wage.
That’s no surprise. Poll after poll shows that by substantial margins and on a bi-partisan basis, voters support raising the minimum wage. And though our economy is improving, 42 percent of the workforce still makes less than $15 per hour, and in a consumer-driven economy like ours, that puts a drag on the ability of businesses to thrive, grow and hire. This has made income inequality, and how we fight it, a top issue this election cycle. And it has made supporting an increase in the minimum wage politically popular.
During two recent Senate debates, two GOP candidates, Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) both broke with their previous opposition to raising the minimum wage (or in the case of Sen. Johnson, even having a minimum wage), and made it clear during their debates that it’s absolutely time to raise the federal minimum wage.
Although Johnson and Portman appear to be defying the norm for their party, they’re actually not alone. Both Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rep. Peter King (New York) have shown support for raising the minimum wage before this campaign season began. Former Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has long voiced his support for raising and indexing the minimum wage so it increases each year, and other notable other GOP politicians including Rick Santorum and Henry Barbour have joined the call. Even GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has voiced his support for a $10 federal minimum wage. Of course, these politicians have called for a far more moderate increase than the current bills pending in Congress, but they are all willing to engage in the crucial discussion of how high we should raise the minimum wage—rather than how low, or non-existent, it should be.
But the real watershed moment came just recently when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) proudly announced her support for a $15 minimum wage for Florida. Her stunning endorsement is the most hopeful sign yet that we are finally reaching the tipping point when Congressional Republicans realize that opposing an increase in the minimum wage is politically unpopular.
Ros-Lehtinen explained, “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Polling by leading Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, backs her up: it shows that while big-money business lobby groups fight even small raises, business owners are actually OK with raising the minimum wage by a lopsided 80-to-8 percent margin. LuntzGlobal warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”
Congressional inactivity on raising the minimum wage in recent years, led solely by the GOP, means that in spite of the great strides states and cities are making across the country with their minimum wages, tens of millions of workers are falling further and further behind each year. As the NELP Action Fund recently documented, there are 24 Republicans up for election in the Senate who live in states where a combined 27 million workers are paid less than $15 per hour, and nearly 20 million make less than $12 per hour.
It’s not only the individual worker who benefits from a wage increase – our economy will benefit, too. When people have more money in their pockets, they have more money to spend in their local economies. Self and family sustaining wages create a virtuous cycle of economic activity and well-being, and it’s clear that this message is truly gaining bi-partisan steam as we approach a new Administration and the next Congress.
The Republicans coming out in support of a minimum wage increase are listening to real small business owners and their own constituents. And as momentum for raising the wage continues to grow, we expect more of their colleagues to step out of the shadows and admit that raising the minimum wage is good policy, good politics, and the right thing to do for the working people they represent.
Judy Conti is federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.
Thanks to the Fight for $15 and the way it has galvanized workers and their advocates across the country, we’ve seen incredible momentum for raising wages and addressing economic inequality over the past few years. And though we celebrate the stunning victories in New York and California that have set millions of low-wage workers on the path to $15 an hour, we cannot lose sight of the fact that tens of millions of other of our nation’s workers are being held back thanks to gridlock in Congress and Republican intransigence.
But as a new report from the National Employment Law Project Action Fund makes clear, this year offers an unprecedented opportunity for low-wage workers and their allies to break the logjam in the U.S. Senate by electing champions who will lead on the issue and put a minimum wage hike within reach.
24 Republican seats are up for election this year and in those 24 states, there are 27 million workers who are paid less than $15 an hour – including nearly 20 million who are paid less than $12 an hour. If even a fraction of those workers mobilize around the issue in tight senate races like Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, they could tip those races and the balance of the Senate, giving the majority to the Democrats who stand ready to do all they can to enact a robust minimum wage increase.
Fearing the groundswell of support for a higher minimum wage, Republicans try to hedge the issue, claiming it should be handled at a state and local level. But as the NELP Action report makes clear, voters should not be fooled by their rhetoric. Across the country, Republican state legislators are affirmatively blocking cities from raising minimum wages and blocking any progress in state legislatures as well. This means that if low-wage workers in more than 20 states ever hope to see an increase in the minimum wage, they will need Congressional action.
We know that across party lines, a large majority of voters want to see an increase in the minimum wage. Recent polling in swing Senate states also shows that by margins of more than two-to-one voters want to raise wages and are more likely to vote for minimum wage champions, and less likely to vote for Republican incumbents when they learn about votes against or opposition to raising the minimum wage.
We also know that Democratic candidates who vigorously campaign on their support for gradually moving up to a $15 federal minimum wage– such as Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania – are among the strongest contenders, based on the polls. Feingold is running well ahead of Sen. Ron Johnson, and McGinty, starting with little name recognition, has taken on a well-known incumbent and turned it into a neck-and-neck race.
These candidates, and others in Senate battleground states, are tapping into widespread frustration with gridlock on this and other important issues in Washington. The 27 million workers in states where Republican Senate seats are up in this election who would benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage are tired of their elected leaders ignoring the overwhelming will of their constituents, and instead doing the bidding of the business lobbies that fund their re-election campaigns.
The Fight for $15 has given birth to a massive grassroots mobilization by local advocates, activists, and underpaid workers to educate voters about this historic opportunity. They are ready to take this fight to the ballot box for the tens of millions of working people in need of a raise. Incumbent Republican senators have a clear choice: get on the right side of this issue, or be prepared to lose your seats and see a Democratic majority that can and will lead on raising the minimum wage.
Mitchell Hirsch is a Senior Policy Advocate at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) Action Fund.