From the moment Gov. Jim Justice took office, he attempted to show his empathy for the state’s poorest people with a story about how he came across a woman in southern West Virginia selling the only items of value her family owned, an axe and a tackle box.
Justice told us in his inaugural address (and on repeated occasions since) about how he gave her $100 each for the two items. This seems like a grand measure of generosity until you consider that, when adjusted for income, it was the equivalent of you or I buying both for a penny.
(Justice has lost a huge chunk of his wealth since then, so currently, that would be more like you or I giving her a nickel or a dime.)
The callousness of taking the woman’s only worldly possessions for the equivalent of a penny pales in light of Justice’s decision to arbitrarily cut off unemployment benefits for 42,000 West Virginians at a time when the pandemic still rages to the point where it remains too dangerous for Justice to conduct in-person media briefings.
Justice joins 20 other Republican governors in cutting off the $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefits, a benefit that Congress extended to Sept. 6 as part of the American Recovery Plan Act.
The pretense is that the extra $300 is a disincentive for the unemployed to return to work, and Justice would have us believe there are more than enough vacancies to put all 24,000 people drawing unemployment back to work in jobs that pay well and provide benefits.
Even more callous is Justice’s decision to also cut off $300-a-week federal supplements to 18,000 self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers as if they also are scamming the system by refusing to work.
The Republican mindset is that people are inherently lazy and corrupt and will look for any angle to game the system. Ronald Reagan perpetuated the ugly racial and gender stereotypes with his evoking of a welfare queen driving a Cadillac and buying steak with food stamps.
Gary Burtless, economist and senior fellow for the Brookings Institution told NBC News it is simply not rational for workers in low-paying food service, warehousing and hospitality industries to put their health and safety at risk to go back to work, particularly when there are other concerns including a lack of affordable child care.
“Why should they make financial sacrifices on behalf of an industry which historically has not paid them very good wages and not offered them very good benefits and so on?” he said.
The insinuation that most of the 42,000 unemployed and underemployed are lazy or are ripping off the system seems particularly hollow since WorkForce West Virginia is reinstating job search requirements, requiring those drawing unemployment to provide proof each week they are actively seeking work and requiring that they accept a suitable job offer.
The benefits cutoff is particularly cruel for the nearly 1,500 employees of Viatris, formerly Mylan Pharmaceuticals, who will lose their jobs when the Morgantown plant closes July 31 and will miss out on five weeks of enhanced benefits through no fault of their own.
That’s particularly heartless given that, by all accounts, the Justice administration has thrown up its hands in any attempt to keep the plant open, despite Justice’s claim that, “I can promise you anybody and everybody is working this as hard as we can.”
Odd that the guy who first campaigned on his ability to pick up the phone and get any and all Fortune 500 CEOs on the line can’t seem to find a number for the owners of the Viatris plant.
It also does not seem very wise at a time when many businesses are struggling to recover from the pandemic for Justice to cut off a $12.6 million weekly federal cash stream for the state economy, potentially costing businesses in the state a total of more than $150 million.
Unlike the wealthy, who are likely to bank their tax breaks and stimulus checks, the unemployed will immediately put that $12.6 million a week back into the economy, benefiting those small businesses Justice claims to be helping by preventing West Virginians from receiving congressionally authorized benefits.
(At the same time he was denying West Virginians $150 million of benefits, Justice was touting with a complete lack of irony how the $100 gift cards he is sending to 16- to 35-year-olds who get vaccinated will benefit businesses in the state by putting upward of $20 million into the economy.)
I think, as the news reports have noted, the pandemic gave workers the opportunity to reflect, and some have decided that, given the costs of commuting and child care, low-paying jobs with no benefits simply are not a viable option.
If, for instance, you’re drawing $470 a week in unemployment benefits, taking a full-time job paying $10 an hour with no benefits is simply not a rational decision.
However, instead of punishing all 42,000 West Virginians drawing the supplemental benefit on the false implication that a majority are scamming the system, why not take some of the $602 million of unspent CARES Act funds and set up a program to allow employers that are having difficulties filling jobs to offer state-funded employee bonuses that would continue until the supplemental benefits expire in September?
That $400-a-week job with no benefits might look more attractive if it came with a state-funded $200 a week bonus through Sept. 6.
Unfortunately, that would require empathetic leadership, and, as noted, cruelty for cruelty’s sake is in the Republican DNA.
Undoubtedly, part of Justice’s callousness has to be a calculated attempt to win favor with legislators who voted down 0-100 his tax break for the wealthy scheme. He’s politically naïve enough to think siding with legislators who are calling for an end to the supplemental benefits will bring them around to his side on the tax plan.
(That includes a group of delegates who sent a letter to Justice saying, “We owe it to our business owners” to take away the supplemental benefits to workers.)
It’s interesting that throughout the debate, Justice has sided entirely with the business owners who claim they can’t find workers, apparently never bothering to ask any of the 42,000 West Virginians drawing supplemental benefits why they are not immediately returning to work. (Of course, looking at state unemployment data for the past four months, the reality is West Virginians are returning to work by the thousands, raising questions about whether the fault might lie with those business owners who claim they can’t fill job vacancies.)
For all his good-old-boy theatrics, Justice is a multi-millionaire who has no real empathy for the working class, regarding them as little more than cogs in the system. That’s why he’s so cavalier when it comes to firing employees from his many businesses or from state government, or in attempting to get people fired.
That’s what you would expect from someone who took a poor woman’s last worldly possessions for a penny.
Speaking of Justice’s firings, when I broached the topic in January, I got a call reminding me I had left one name off the list.
Dave Perry reminded me Justice had dumped him from the state Board of Education, despite his desire to continue serving.
As when Justice removed West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee from the state Public Employees Grievance Board, Perry said, he got notification of his termination via e-mail.
“I would have at least appreciated the courtesy for him to have talked to me first,” Perry said.
At the time, Perry had been critical of Justice’s push to return teachers and students to classrooms before teachers had gotten COVID-19 vaccinations. Perry said the bad blood with Justice predates those concerns.
“Bray Cary and I had a run-in long before that,” Perry said of Justice’s senior advisor and shadow chief of staff.
Perry joins a long list of vindictive Justice firings, including but not limited to: Chief of Staff Nick Casey, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, Education and Arts Secretary Gayle Manchin and state Public Health Officer Cathy Slemp.
Finally, Justice quote of the week: “We were dead last so far that the whole nation lapped us … West Virginia dead super last.”
For someone whose stock-in-trade is grandiose falsehoods about how the state is leading or close to leading the nation in various categories, frequently that West Virginia is the envy of the nation, Justice’s statement about the state’s population loss in the 2020 Census was astonishingly blunt.
Justice was using the state’s 3.2% population loss — by far the nation’s worst; two other states also lost population, but only by decimal points — to again tout his delusional belief that if the state would just eliminate income taxes for the wealthy, and shift the tax burden to those working class West Virginians he believes are scamming the system, the state’s population woes would magically reverse.
As we’ve discussed, West Virginia’s population losses (which have accelerated in the past six years) are the result of systemic problems that won’t disappear by giving the wealthy another tax break, and certainly won’t by placing larger tax burdens on the state’s working classes.
While Justice and his legislative leadership seem unwilling to address those problems, we’ll keep delving into them here.