Republican lawmakers have made no secret of their plans to drastically cut the extra federal unemployment insurance benefit from coronavirus relief, which is officially expiring on July 31 thanks to their inaction. But recent reports from Sinclair Broadcast Group which were broadcast on dozens of local television stations around the country effectively worked to hide from their audience the fact that Republicans specifically plan to cut hundreds of dollars per week from the federal unemployment benefits, instead relying on misleading figures from White House officials.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in late March added an additional federal unemployment benefit of $600 per week on top of states’ regular unemployment insurance payments in response to furloughs and layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. That extra benefit technically expires on July 31 after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass legislation extending it, and many people received their last checks several days ago. In contrast, House Democrats passed a bill months ago which included an extension of this benefit through January 2021.
News organizations have been reporting on specific numbers from Republican plans to shrink the federal unemployment benefit since at least as far back as July 20. On that day, The Washington Post reported, “GOP lawmakers have discussed proposing the federal benefit be cut from an additional $600 per week to between $200 per week and $400 per week.” On July 22, CNBC reported, “Republicans are considering extending the enhanced unemployment insurance benefit at a dramatically reduced level of $400 per month, or $100 a week, through the rest of the year.” CNBC noted that this “would slash the amount of money beneficiaries receive at a time when roughly 30 million people are receiving unemployment insurance in some form.” On July 23, The New York Times reported additional details of the Republican plan, while noting: “Many economists warn that the reduced assistance could cause rippling damage across households and the broad economy.”
Under the Republican plan, the federal government would stop supplementing workers’ state unemployment benefits with the weekly $600 lump sum. It would first replace that sum with a $200 weekly benefit for everyone.
Then, after two months, the federal government would scrap the enhanced flat-rate checks entirely and instead provide additional money on top of state benefits so that workers received a percentage of their previous salary.
But three recent reports from Sinclair national correspondents hid the extent of those cuts from local television news audiences when covering details of the new Republican coronavirus relief bill. These reports aired days after other news organizations reported the likely dollar amount Republicans wanted to cut from the federal unemployment benefit.
A report from Sinclair chief political correspondent Scott Thuman, which began airing on July 23, mentioned that Republicans were debating removing some amount from the $600 weekly payments. The report included Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s reference to “a 70% wage replacement,” but it wasn’t any more specific about the amount of the proposed cuts. This report aired on at least 52 Sinclair-owned or -operated TV stations in 35 states, according to a transcript search of the Kinetiq video database.
A second report from Sinclair national correspondent Kristine Frazao that began airing on July 26 covered the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about the amount of extra unemployment payments Americans should receive. But it failed to mention a specific figure Republicans planned to replace the $600 per week payments. Frazao’s report aired on at least 48 stations in 34 states and Washington, D.C.
Another report from Thuman began airing on July 27 and mentioned the likely “passionate fight over how much additional money should be given weekly to the tens of millions of Americans currently on unemployment” -- but again failed to mention any specific planned cuts by Republicans. This report from Thuman aired on at least 44 stations in 34 states.
Instead of reporting that Republicans plan to cut weekly payments by about $400, all three of these Sinclair reports quoted a senior Trump official saying the administration wants a “70% wage replacement” or a “70% cap on wages.” That figure is confusing and meaningless without additional context, which these Sinclair reporters failed to offer.
Reporting from The New York Times makes clear that this is in fact a drastic cut to these benefits, which were designed to replace 100% of an average worker’s wages, and exceeded the normal pay for workers who were paid low wages:
Republicans have repeatedly signaled that they would like the new benefit to equal 70 percent of a worker’s previous salary in combined state and federal benefits — which works out to an average of about $200 per week in federal benefits for a typical worker.
In other words, a typical unemployed American’s benefits would drop $400 per week from the benefits currently in place. But the change would affect different workers in different ways, with the lowest earners faring the worst.
If such a system were implemented, some workers — those who were earning the lowest wages before losing their jobs, who have gained the most with the enhanced benefit checks — could see their benefits drop by more than $400 a week. Unemployed workers who had been earning above-average wages could see their benefits drop by less.
These Sinclair reports could have made it clear that this is, in fact, a huge cut in payments, especially for workers who were paid low wages? But they served to hide the extent of Republican’s proposed benefit cuts from local television news consumers.
Two of these reports also uncritically advanced Republicans’ questionable claim that the $600 weekly unemployment benefit payment is acting as a disincentive for people to return to work during the ongoing deadly pandemic. But many economists say that any effect of the extra unemployment payments on the incentive to work is small -- especially since there are fewer available jobs. One investment bank economist explained to The New York Times that “economic activity is declining as the virus surges in many parts of the country, forcing some states to order businesses to close back down.” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell further debunked this GOP argument:
Job vacancy postings are still down about a quarter from precrisis levels. And while it seems possible that, on the margin, some workers might turn down work because they want to keep getting that government cheese, the generosity of benefits do not, on net, appear to be holding back employment growth.
“So far, there is no evidence that the [federal $600 payments] had either job finding or job leaving effects in the May and June data,” according to a detailed analysis of Labor Department data from Ernie Tedeschi, Evercore ISI’s head of fiscal analysis.