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Opinion | Unemployed Alabama workers deserve support, not suspicion

Unemployment insurance form on dark wooden background top view.

Thousands of sick Alabamians. Hundreds of dead Alabamians. Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians out of work. 

These are the realities of the COVID-19 virus’ effect on this state. 

But they are not the most worrisome aspects of this crisis. 

No, the most worrisome aspect, it turns out — and really, y’all, hold onto your seats because you won’t be ready for this — is that some low-wage workers, because of the federal government’s added unemployment incentives of $600 per week, are drawing more money being out of work than they did while working. 

Get the pitchforks and the tiki torches, we’re marching! 

That gem of a revelation was contained in a report submitted to Gov. Kay Ivey by the Alabama Policy Institute, which bills itself as a “think tank,” despite what I’ve just told you. 

In reality, API is a glorified group of rightwing elitists who spend their every waking hour coming up with ways to give themselves and their friends more tax breaks and advantages and making sure that the working poor in Alabama never ever sniff a break of any kind. 

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In decently run states, such a group would be fringe and you’d mostly never hear of them, and I’d never waste my time and yours writing a column about their horrible ideas for governance. In Alabama, unfortunately, the governor includes them when requesting ideas on when best to ease back her stay-at-home order in the middle of a pandemic. 

So, as Alabama’s congresspeople and other medical professionals are submitting suggestions cemented in facts and reason, mixed among their reports is one that contains this beauty: “While helpful to individuals out of work the unfortunate impact of (increased federal and state unemployment payments during the coronavirus crisis) is the disincentivization of workers to work and/or return to work. Many individuals are being paid more now to not work.”

Let me put this in perspective for you, Alabama worker. 

While you’re worried about the ongoing crisis, trying to protect your loved ones and your possessions in a tumultuous time and continue to put food on the table every day, this group that’s now apparently advising the governor believes the major concern here is your lack of motivation to get back out on the job site because instead of the near-slave wages you were earning, there’s now nearly enough coming in to pay all the bills. 

And the group that’s making this complaint, according to its most recent tax filings, takes in more than a million dollars annually in donations and … federal grants. 

Which is pretty on-brand for Alabama, where we’re absolutely running over with rich, white men who keep turning up at the State House with their hands out even as they’re lecturing the poor and minorities about pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. 

But this tactic is even more sinister than usual. Because it seeks to push the working people of the state back into potentially dangerous working conditions by removing their only lifeline — their unemployment compensation. 

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Without that check coming in each month, and with some businesses reopening soon, some employees could face a literal life-or-death decision. 

Making matters worse, the Alabama Department of Labor has issued new guidance for businesses and the unemployed, making it clear that those workers whose employers reopen could be ineligible for unemployment compensation unless they are again laid off or fired. It even promoted a new reporting system where employers could report employees they suspect of violating the rules. 

That is a dangerous position for the state of Alabama to assume, because it sets up a scenario in which the Department of Labor is determining, during a pandemic, whether workers are choosing to remain out of work due to legitimate health care concerns or if they’re faking it to get a decent check. 

If the Department of Labor denies a claim and essentially forces a person back to work, and then that person dies from COVID-19, that would seem to be a very large legal issue. One that could be multiplied several thousand times over. 

Here’s an idea: Instead of always, always assuming the worst out of a workforce that had about a 3 percent unemployment rate prior to this crisis, how about we assume that the overwhelming majority of that workforce would very much like to get back to work and a normal life as soon as it’s safe to do so? How about you just pay the unemployment claims and imagine them feeding a family of four, with a hardworking dad and church-going mom, who just need a little help right now? 

Is that so hard?

And maybe save the anger and frustration for the failures of the federal government to properly prepare for this pandemic or to properly respond to it. And for the major companies who bought up stocks with their tax break money and couldn’t make it a month during the shutdown. And for the boobs who keep showing up on capitol steps with their AR-15s and stupid signs. 

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The working people of this state are overwhelmingly good and decent people who just want to feed their families. 

Leave them alone. 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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