Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

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(The Center Square) – Newly released federal data show an increase in new unemployment filings as a leading Congressional Democrat has renewed a push to reinstate federal unemployment payments.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released said Thursday that first time filers for unemployment benefits rose to 332,000 for the week ending Sept. 11, an increase of 20,000 from the week prior. While both week's figures are lower than during most of the pandemic, they are still well above pre-pandemic unemployment levels.

“The highest insured unemployment rates in the week ending August 28 were in Puerto Rico (4.5), California (3.7), New Jersey (3.4), District of Columbia (3.3), Illinois (3.1), New York (3.0), Rhode Island (2.9), Connecticut (2.8), Georgia (2.8), and Hawaii (2.6),” BLS said. “The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending September 4 were in Louisiana (+7,664), Michigan (+5,318), California (+1,209), Kansas (+528), and Nevada (+420), while the largest decreases were in Missouri (-6,949), New York (-3,020), Florida (-2,482), Tennessee (-1,923), and Georgia (-1,814).”

Congress enacted supplemental weekly federal unemployment payments as a response to increased joblessness during COVID-19, state and local governments issued restrictions that resulted in many businesses deemed nonessential shutting down.

Critics argue those payments – $300 a week in the latest program approved by Congress – roughly double the state payments, and when added to other government benefits make it unnecessary for many Americans to work.

The payments expired in early September without a fight from the Biden administration or many Democrats. Republicans welcomed the expiration.

A Morning Consult survey released earlier this year showed that 1.8 million unemployed Americans turned away job offers saying they would rather continue receiving unemployment benefits. More than two dozen Republican governors pointed to this sentiment and turned away the benefits months before they expired.

Economists will be closely watching the changes in unemployment numbers over the next few weeks now that the federal benefits have expired.

Now that the lockdowns are over and the economy has reopened, many lawmakers were ready to let the federal benefits phase out, arguing they incentivize Americans not to return to work.

Others, though, want to reinstate the payments.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced this week new legislation that would continue the federal unemployment payments through Feb. 1, 2022.

“I’ve been very disappointed on both sides of the aisle that we’ve just simply allowed pandemic unemployment assistance to completely lapse when we are clearly not fully recovered from the consequences of the pandemic,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a virtual town hall meeting. “I simply could not let this happen without at least just trying.”

Her plan, which faces an uphill battle in Congress, would also retroactively pay Americans to when their benefits expired earlier this month.

Those payments have come under increasing scrutiny, though, from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say there may have been hundreds of billions of tax dollars wasted.

Republicans in both chambers of Congress sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office calling on the government watchdog to investigate waste and fraud in the federal unemployment program, which the lawmakers estimate could be as much as $400 billion.

“It is concerning that responsibility for determining how much fraud has occurred lies scattered throughout a web of bureaucracies,” the letter read. “The scattering of responsibilities suggests that Congress will be ill equipped to have adequate information to assess future unemployment insurance responses to large economic shocks; and, at the same time, ensure they are not plagued by gaping security holes that allow fraudsters an open window to use to unlawfully obtain taxpayer funds.”

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