Healey UI attacks on Baker misplaced

Unemployment insurance is a federal responsibility

As noted by Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproves of the way the Baker administration is handling the spike in demand for unemployment insurance that’s coming from workers sidelined by the coronavirus.

“Our hotline is flooded with calls from workers unable to speak to a live person at Dept. of Unemployment,” Healey tweeted. “We are doing our best to get them answers, but they need the Governor to staff up and open the Teleclaim Center now.”

What the Baker administration didn’t say in response, but might have, is that it’s not the job of state government to pay to keep the unemployment system up and running, processing the claims, and issuing the payments. That’s actually the job of the federal government, and it’s been that way since 1935, when Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s labor secretary, offered federal funding as a sweetener to induce otherwise reluctant states to agree to participate in the new nationwide unemployment insurance program.

In each of the first two years of the Baker administration (which were the last two years of the Obama administration), Massachusetts got more than $75 million in federal funds to run our UI program. That amount has been declining each year since, in keeping with the Trump administration’s view that worker protections of all kinds deserve perpetual austerity.

For this fiscal year, federal funding is down to $63 million. Maybe that’s (barely) enough to pay for a UI system that can process 20,000 claims in a month, but certainly not 20,000 claims in a day. In order to succeed in its mission to be the first line of defense against a recession, a UI program has to be able to plan that an enviable 3 percent unemployment rate might not last forever. Our state UI program is manifestly not succeeding right now, and the Trump administration bears much of the responsibility.

It’s not hard to imagine why the Baker chose to maintain his silence on this point. He and the president are — at least nominally — members of the same political party. And, like all governors, he’s aware that the president is watching them extra closely, testing for symptoms of disloyalty to him and threatening to mete out coronavirus resources accordingly.  Our hospitals’ access to extra ventilators could be at stake.

Governor Baker, if this is what’s going on, please blink twice.

Margaret Monsell, a former assistant attorney general and former general counsel to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.