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Sen. Lankford Addresses Unemployment Benefits During Coronavirus Pandemic


For millions of Americans who lost jobs during this pandemic, the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits has become a lifeline. It's helped them pay their bills, put food on the table. It's people like Cate Cundiff, who lost her job as a theater stage manager.


CATE CUNDIFF: One week of regular unemployment without the $600 doesn't even cover a month of health insurance for my daughter and I, let alone rent, child care so I can try to find a job, you know, food, bills. Like, we still have bills to pay.

GREENE: Those payments that she has been getting are set to end tomorrow, but Congress is nowhere near a deal to figure out what to do next. We want to turn to Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee. Senator, thanks for being here.

JAMES LANKFORD: You bet. It's good to be able to visit with you this morning.

GREENE: So the new Republican proposal, in terms of what to do next, would lower the weekly payments - federal unemployment payments from $600 to $200 through the end of September. What makes you think that someone like Cate can get by on 200 a week if she's been really relying on this?

LANKFORD: Actually, it's not 200 a week; it's their normal unemployment for their state plus an additional 200 a week.

GREENE: So it's $400 lower for someone like her.

LANKFORD: Well, it ends up being about 70% of most individuals' normal income. Right now, just depending on the state that you're in, some individuals are receiving 90% to 95% of their income; some people are receiving 110% to 150% of their normal income. And so we're trying to be able to get to a targeted amount - about 70% of normal income. Unemployment assistance has always been less than what you normally make. It wasn't designed to be your full salary. It was designed to be something to be able to help you get through this. That's what we're trying to get back to.

GREENE: Fair enough. But, I mean, this is a pandemic. I mean, this is a - this seems like a different time. And I just wonder, if you're someone like Cate, who's worked for a theater in California that is not reopening for business anytime soon, you're asking her to suddenly try and pay the rent on $400 less a week. I guess I'm just wondering why you think that that's the time to make that change.

LANKFORD: So I would say for those individuals that you would say, this is not a pandemic, or, this is a pandemic time period, six months ago, 10 months ago, a year ago, if you were unemployed, it felt like a pandemic to you. If you're unemployed, you're unemployed. And that's a challenge for you at any time at any place. So while I am very compassionate for those individuals like Cate and like millions of others, there are also millions of others at normal times as well that also struggle through this. So there are challenges with the unemployment system, period.

But the way it's been designed for decades is it's not full wage replacement or in excess of your normal wages; it's less than your normal wages because there's no way the federal taxpayer can replace everyone's wages across the entire country for an indefinite period of time. That's taking from your next-door neighbor. That's taking from your children and your grandchildren as you borrow towards the future. So we've got to find a way to be able to help people get through it, but there's no way to be able to make every business, every individual whole in the entire country.

GREENE: Well, let me dig in a little deeper here. I mean, you mentioned that your party wants to set a goal of making sure people are getting 70% of what they were making before this pandemic. The Washington Post actually spoke with the director of your state's unemployment agency, Shelley Zumwalt, who said that the agency is using a computer system that dates back to 1978. They've been absolutely overwhelmed. One of the concerns expressed is that a complicated system like that states just are not ready to be able to process in that way. What makes you confident your state's incredibly old computer system could actually do this efficiently enough that people will get that relief?

LANKFORD: So I actually spoke to Shelley last week about this in particular as well. And you're right. It is a challenge. Our system itself runs on a cobalt (ph) system from 1985, actually. And finding individuals that can just go reprogram a cobalt (ph) system is not somebody that is - we have a large percentage of anywhere in the country. Our system's very similar to others. They're designed to do one thing. They do that one thing, and they've done it for a very long time. Now to be able to make a change has been very difficult. That's why the additional $600 a week for many states, my state included, took two months to actually implement. And so the focus that we had is changing it from 600 to 200 as a rapid change - would be something that our state could do rapidly. That's the simplest.

Changing it to a percentage, as Shelley would tell you, from our state would be the worst-case scenario if you're just going to do a percentage. So what we have to do is get a rolling average - that's going to be high for some; it's going to be a little bit low for some - but to try to get a average number that we think, this is what it's going to be. But there's no way to actually go to every person's wages - exactly what it was - and to be able to figure 70%. That would take months and months, and people need the aid faster than that.

GREENE: But she told you she's confident she can do this? I mean, we've seen - I've seen some reporting from, like, The Washington Post of people waiting in lines at an Expo Center in Tulsa, I mean, overnight to try and get their unemployment claims processed. But why are you confident that this is not going to make the problem worse if you go forward with this proposal?

LANKFORD: Because we're not doing an exact percentage for every single person. It's what I was saying before. If you do an exact percentage, that's a worst-case scenario. If you get an average of all employees in this range, then you're able to apply a fixed number on it. They can do a fixed number. Just trying to do a specific percentage for every single person would be disastrous, so we cannot do that. We have to find the solid average for what we have and then to be able to apply that.

Again, the goal is to get assistance to people as quickly as possible. We have people across the country still waiting for assistance - not just in my state, but in multiple states - because the state unemployment systems are not set up to do major changes. The more you tweak the system and the more you make changes in the system, the more difficult it becomes.

GREENE: I want to - in the short time we have left, I want to turn to another topic, if I can - the federal deployment of...


GREENE: ...Agents to cities where there've been protests over racial injustice. We spoke with the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, this morning. I want to take a listen.

JENNY DURKAN: It is unprecedented for federal authorities to take this level of approach for local jurisdictions and cities and surge federal resources in them to take over public safety duties like arresting people and policing protesters.

GREENE: Senator, can you understand why the image of federal forces deployed by the president taking over public safety duties, arresting people in American cities has concerned a lot of people?

LANKFORD: I'm concerned at the way that national media has portrayed it, and for the mayor's statement of unprecedented is just factually not true. Federal agents are not wandering the streets of American cities arresting people. They're protecting federal property. And if...

GREENE: But they have been arresting people away from the federal building in Portland, right? I mean, that's an accurate assessment.

LANKFORD: Absolutely. Absolutely, they have. No, absolutely, they have. They're arresting people away from the protests because they're identifying who are the instigators of damage and attacks on police officers and law enforcement. And then while they get away from the protest, they get to that spot to be able to go engage with them. Otherwise, it makes the protests more volatile. These individuals are not just wandering the streets.

GREENE: But have - didn't they make the protest more volatile? Didn't they make the protest more volatile, the federal agents? That's the reporting...

LANKFORD: No, absolutely not. No, no, no. Let me finish this, David, because it is inaccurate in its reporting in that. Now, that could be something that protesters are going to say. But in reality, they've stayed around the federal buildings, and they're protecting federal buildings. That is their responsibility to be able to protect that property. And if local law enforcement will not do it, federal law enforcement does. And there's always federal inspectors that are there watching out.

GREENE: We'll keep reporting on this. Senator Lankford, thank you so much.

LANKFORD: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.