The COVID-19 crisis has unfolded in predictably troubling ways in Iowa. Acting on a false sense of rural isolation, the state is one of only five (four of them in the upper Midwest) never to issue a statewide “shelter-in-place” order. And now, even as the virus continues to take its toll in Iowa cities and factories, the state is one of a handful to lurch toward “reopening” — a decision, the Iowa Medical Society warned last week, “all but certain to cause a spike in new COVID-19 patients and potentially overwhelm our health care system.”
With Iowa’s legislative session suspended, Governor Kim Reynolds (“a pro-life, pro-family, pro-taxpayer, limited-government conservative” who took over as state leader when Terry Branstad was appointed ambassador to China in 2016) has led the response to the pandemic. That response has been, to put it simply, Trump-like. The governor’s office has relied on a mystifyingly opaque “matrix” to calibrate public health measures, its every move marked by a slavish deference to business interests. Facing criticism over COVID-19 testing, Reynolds took the advice of Iowa-born actor Ashton Kutcher and signed a $26 million no-bid contract with an unproven Utah testing firm.
The state is facing a jobs crisis that echoes the nation’s. New weekly unemployment claims spiked dramatically in mid-March. Over the next six weeks over 260,000 Iowans filed for unemployment insurance — fully 15 percent of the labor force and more than four times as many claims as were filed in the worst six-week stretch of the Great Recession.
Reynold’s response to the crisis has become just one more chapter in the ongoing assault on Iowa’s workers. As in other states, the federal programs expanding and extending unemployment insurance coverage hit a brick wall of willful administrative incapacity at Iowa Workforce Development (IWD, the state agency that processes unemployment insurance claims). The result was like an outtake from the dystopian bureaucratic nightmare Brazil: applicants to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (intended to extend coverage to self-employed and “gig” workers) received a green rejection form, followed by a directive to ignore the green form and reapply, followed by another green rejection form, accompanied by a small slip of paper advising applicants to continue ignoring the green forms — which were apparently being printed and mailed by a computer that IWD had no control over.
Then, with the decision to gradually reopen the state, any pretense of concern for Iowa workers — employed and unemployed alike — evaporated. Just as Reynolds announced the relaxation of restrictions, IWD chimed in with a chilling directive for unemployed Iowans — warning not only that “Iowans who refuse to return to work without good reason when recalled will lose eligibility to unemployment benefits,” but that those who continued to draw benefits in defiance of this order also faced “serious consequences for fraud, including fines, confinement, and ineligibility for future unemployment benefits.” The agency even created a web form that encourages employers to “report employees who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs.”
The IWD directive goes on to list a narrow range of “good cause” reasons for remaining unemployed, including a positive COVID-19 test (for the worker or a member of their household) and losing childcare or transportation to work because of COVID-19.
The agency’s edict is shockingly bad public health policy in a state where the most severe COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at workplaces. It’s also a fundamental misreading of both Iowa law and the terms of the federal Families First and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Acts.
Under Iowa Code, if a person leaves a job due to “unsafe working conditions” or “intolerable or detrimental working conditions,” they are entitled to unemployment benefits. The determination of what is “unsafe” or “intolerable” depends on both the workplace and the worker. A reasonable standard of safety, under these conditions, might be the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) for best practices regarding social distancing and protective equipment for workplaces. Yet while IWD presses the unemployed back into the labor force, the expectations of employers are slim. OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance is “not a standard or regulation,” as it timidly assures employers, “and it creates no new legal obligations.”
IWD’s directive flies in the face of the federal programs designed to both prop up state employment systems and make it easier to get unemployment insurance benefits through the crisis. The Families First Act (passed in mid-March) offered emergency grants to states (including Iowa) to administer unemployment under the condition that states streamline their application process and “demonstrate policies to increase access to unemployment compensation.”
The CARES Act (passed in late March) established three new unemployment programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for those workers (self-employed, gig workers) not conventionally eligible for unemployment insurance; Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), which adds $600 per week (through the end of July) to all unemployment claims paid under either regular unemployment insurance or the PUA; and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a thirteen-week extension of state unemployment insurance benefits.
These programs extended the spirit of the Families First Act: states were — once again — expected to lower the barriers for receiving unemployment benefits, making it economically feasible for workers to stay at home.
Iowa’s right-wing leadership has done precisely the opposite, displaying a mind-boggling level of malevolence and myopia. By making it dramatically harder to obtain unemployment insurance, the state is denying workers access to benefits that were explicitly set up to allow them to avoid work during a public health crisis. And in the process, the state is forgoing millions of federal dollars, one $600 weekly check at a time — when direct aid from Congress seems increasingly unlikely.
The intended effect, neatly dovetailing with Trump’s recent executive order forcing meatpacking plants to stay open, is to corral Iowa’s workers back into high-risk workplaces by taking all other options off the table.
At its core, the CARES Act was a tacit admission that the reach and generosity of the US welfare state is sorely lacking, and that states don’t have the fiscal capacity or political will to fill in the yawning gaps. But, in Iowa and elsewhere, that epiphany is quickly evaporating. And as in the Great Recession, many states are retreating to their baseline politics of neglect and austerity — well before the crisis has even passed.