US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Harkin: It is Wrong to Cut Disability Programs to Pay for Extension of Federal Unemployment Insurance

Monday, January 13, 2014

*As prepared for delivery*

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a floor speech Monday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, expressed his support for extending federal unemployment insurance.  He also voiced concerns about the impact of proposed offsets, which include cuts to programs serving Americans with disabilities.

“Extending federal unemployment insurance benefits is one of the most important things that Congress can do right now, both for the unemployed, but also for the economy,” Harkin said. “While our economy is improving, there are still 10.4 million Americans out of work. Almost 4 million of those unemployed Americans have been looking for a job for more than six months. Faced with this reality, it was reprehensible that Congress failed to extend federal unemployment benefits at the end of last year.” 

“However, the proposal before us would [offset the extension] in one of the most pernicious ways possible…by effectively denying individuals who have a disability and receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) from receiving their … rightful unemployment insurance compensation.  SSDI is designed to address the needs of people with disabilities.  Unemployment insurance is designed as a partial, temporary replacement of income for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.  These are two separate programs, and as a result, it is possible for individuals to be eligible for both benefits.

“… [T]he actions that have been proposed to pay for the extension of unemployment insurance are an affront to the dignity of persons with disabilities and the work they perform – undermining one of the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act. … As much as I support extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, we should never be forced to meet the needs of one vulnerable population by robbing another.”

The full text of Harkin’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, follows. Watch the full speech here.

“Extending federal unemployment insurance benefits is one of the most important things that Congress can do right now, both for the unemployed, but also for the economy. While our economy is improving, there are still 20 million Americans either out of work or marginally-employed who want to work. Almost 4 million of those unemployed Americans have been looking for a job for more than six months. Faced with this reality, it was reprehensible that Congress failed to extend federal unemployment benefits at the end of last year. 

“To correct this failure, last week the Senate began considering a bill intended to extend those benefits.  I wholeheartedly support this effort.  As our economy makes steady improvements on the long road to recovery from the Great Recession, we should continue to support our fellow Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own.  The way to do that is to restore the federal unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed.

“But to garner the votes needed to pass the unemployment insurance extension, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle insisted we find a way to pay for the extension through cuts to existing programs, cuts that, as one columnist for The Los Angeles Times said were “Swiftian in their absurdity and cruelty.” It’s titled, ‘An awful idea: Hammer the disabled to pay for unemployment benefits.’

“I do not believe that an extension of federal unemployment insurance must be offset. We’ve done it before, we did it under the Bush administration, and it’s always been an emergency. Just as if a hurricane hits, a terrible storm; well this is a terrible storm for people who have been unemployed for long periods of time. And quite frankly, the budget deal that we recently passed reduced the deficit by $25 billion.  Nevertheless, if finding additional savings to offset the cost of unemployment insurance is necessary to pass this legislation I am reluctantly willing to do so.

“However, the proposal before us would do so in one of the most pernicious ways possible.  The most positive thing I can say about it is that it is comparatively less damaging than some of the amendments that have been filed by my Republican colleagues. 

“The proposal before us would effectively deny individuals who have a disability and received Social Security Disability Insurance from receiving their well-earned and rightful unemployment insurance compensation by reducing a person’s disability benefits by the amount of unemployment insurance they receive.  For every one dollar in unemployment insurance they received, their Social Security Disability Insurance would be reduced by one dollar. Amendments filed by my Republican colleagues would go further, and entirely eliminate a person’s disability insurance benefits and Medicare benefits as a result of the fact that they were also receiving unemployment insurance.

“The proponents of these policies say that people with disabilities who are receiving disability benefits and unemployment insurance are ‘double dipping.’  They claim this is a loop hole in our policies; that somehow people who receive disability benefits and unemployment insurance are scamming they system.

“This is just not true. This is simply not true.

“SSDI is designed to address the needs of people with disabilities.  Unemployment insurance is designed as a partial, temporary replacement of income for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.  These are two separate programs, and as a result, it is possible for individuals to be eligible for both benefits.

“Well how can this be? First of all, we have to disabuse ourselves of what we keep hearing here on the Senate floor from my friends on the Republican side. They keep talking about disability insurance as though if you get disability insurance, then you’re unable to work.  

“This is simply not true. SSDI is set up as a system to give you some support while you look for work or get a job to supplement that.  Under the law, people with disabilities who receive SSDI can work and are encouraged to work. And they can.

“Participants in the program are permitted to work and earn up to $1,070 a month without losing their SSDI benefits.  Why is that the case? Because we want people to work to the best of their abilities, especially when they have a disability.  Working is good for all of us.  It keeps us engaged with others.  It improves our physical health.  It improves our mental health.  And working improves our quality of life.

“The SSDI is not a ‘freeloader’ program.  When you work and you get a paycheck, FICA taxes are taken out. There are three parts of that. You pay to an insurance program for Social Security, old age, and survivors. The second part is hospital insurance – Medicare. The third part is disability insurance. If you don’t work and haven’t paid in your FICA taxes, you don’t get SSDI.  An adult who becomes eligible for SSDI will have worked at least 10 years and will have had earnings during at least five of the previous 10 years before he or she becomes eligible for SSDI.  And an eligible individual will have needed to have worked enough, on average, to have earned at least $4,800 per year.  So we are not talking about individuals who get a job, work for four weeks and then file for SSDI. That’s nonsense. It’s not true. There are substantial requirements to be eligible for these benefits.

“Then let’s say you do become disabled and you file for disability. What are your chances of getting it? One out of three. For every three persons who file for disability compensation, only one out of three actually get it. Why is that? You have to go through a long evidentiary process, a medically evidentiary process. And administrative law justices can send you back to get further opinions. So it’s not something you just file for and you get it.

“And I know that I have heard my colleagues on the other side of the aisle talk about the great dignity of work.  How work is honorable and builds character.  And they are right—it does!  And that is one reason why our policies permit and encourage those who receive SSDI benefits to work.

“And that is why, if a person works and pays taxes, even if that person is receiving SSDI benefits, when that person is laid-off, he or she suffers a loss of income and should be able to collect unemployment insurance.  People with disabilities who work pay into the system and are eligible for unemployment compensation, so why shouldn’t they get this insurance?  If we deny their right to the unemployment insurance they paid for, we are discriminating against a group of people in a way no other group is singled out. In other words, we are discriminating against you just because you’re disabled.

“Let me provide an example of what this proposal would mean to a real person.   This is the case of a young man here in DC who I’ll call Henry.  He is in his early 30s and he is deaf. But Henry works. He worked for 10 years.  Henry is eligible for SSDI and receives $740 a month in benefits.  Henry also used to work part-time for a private shipping company where he earned $950 a month.  He worked part-time because of fatigue related to additional health conditions he has, making it difficult for him to work full-time.  But he wants to work as much as he can.  He is happier when he works. 

“The combination of his SSDI benefits and his part-time earnings meant that his monthly income was about $1,690.  

“Because of a number of challenges with his health, Henry lost his job.  He had worked diligently and when he was laid-off he applied for unemployment insurance.  He was found eligible for unemployment insurance and was awarded a weekly benefit of $121.  As his health improved he started to look for work again.  With his SSDI benefits and his temporary unemployment insurance benefits, Henry had a monthly income of approximately $1,260, enough to keep him independent and allow him to look for new, part-time work. 

“Now imagine Henry’s situation under some of the proposed policies we have been discussing.  Under the amendment that’s in this bill, if Henry’s SSDI benefits are reduced, dollar for dollar, by the amount of unemployment benefits he receives, his monthly income would be reduced by approximately $500 making his monthly income a significantly lower total of $740.  He won’t be able to afford his apartment. This would make it impossible for him to be independent.

“No other person working in America and paying in their FICA taxes is treated like that. No one. And they still aren’t unless this amendment is adopted. And then we will discriminate you simply because you’re disabled.

“We have to extend unemployment benefits, but not at the expense of people who are on the lowest rung of our ladder. People with disabilities, who have paid into the system and have become unemployed. Henry wants to work.

“Henry is not ‘double dipping.’  He is not ‘scamming the system.’  He is not a slacker or defrauding anybody.  He is only getting what is rightfully his because by paid into the program. The support he needs to be an active, contributing member of society.

“Let me be very clear: disability insurance and unemployment insurance are distinct programs that address different needs, provide different benefits, and they are for different purposes. SSDI benefits provide insurance for all Americans so that they will not fall into poverty if they become disabled and are no longer able to work at their current job, though, as I noted, it allows and even encourages work by permitting people with disabilities to make up to $1,070 per month.

“UI provides partial replacement of earned income when someone loses a job through no fault of his or her own.

“If people with disabilities are earning income, they should be eligible for that replacement just as any other citizen who has paid into the system would be eligible. Period.  To do otherwise is to discriminate against these hard working Americans.

“One of the proudest moments of my career in Washington was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.  When we passed that bill there were cheers because it was the civil rights law for people with disabilities, 25 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. 

“And because of that law, we have encouraged people with disabilities to work. They want to work. Now we just want to break down the barriers and provide for accommodations and transportation and ramps and all the other things that make it possible for people with disabilities to get a job and go to work. Change the system.

“Now, people with disabilities are working and they want to work. But now we’re saying to them: You can work, but if you pay into that system and become unemployed, you will lose benefits simply because we’re discriminating against you.

“But despite that law; the actions that have been proposed to pay for the extension of unemployment insurance are an affront to the dignity of persons with disabilities and the work they perform - undermining one of the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is to see a society in which people with disabilities have the supports they need to work alongside able-bodied Americans.

“That’s why this provision is opposed by members of the disability community including groups like the ARC, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, the American Association of People with Disabilities, Social Security Works and many others. I ask unanimous consent that a letter expressing opposition to this proposal from 27 groups be placed in the record at the conclusion of my remarks.

“As much as I support extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, we should never be forced to meet the needs of one vulnerable population by robbing another.  We are a better country than that.  I am happy to work with my colleagues to find another way to get unemployment insurance extended, but we should not and cannot take funds from a program designed to support people with disabilities, to keep them from living in poverty, and to help them remain engaged in their communities.  And we certainly should not be institutionalizing a policy that is patently discriminatory.”

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