European Workers Draw Paychecks. American Workers Scrounge for Food.


LONDON — In the southeast corner of Ireland, Brian Byrne’s event-planning business was confronting a calamity. It was the middle of March, and the coronavirus pandemic was nearing peak lethality. As the government barred gatherings like music festivals, his revenue disappeared, forcing him to consider laying off his four full-time workers.

But a swiftly arranged government program spared their jobs. It provided 70 to 85 percent of their wages, enabling Mr. Byrne to keep them employed.

“It oddly hasn’t been a stressful time,” he said. “I can keep the team together, keep them motivated. We’re basically doing everything we can to be ready for when the restrictions are eased.”

Across the Atlantic in New York, the pandemic cost Salvador Dominguez his job selling Manhattan real estate. He eventually qualified for an emergency expansion of federal unemployment benefits, but not before 72 agonizing days of waiting. He borrowed from friends and family members to pay his rent, and he harvested food from the trash at a high-end grocery store.

“How can I describe it?” said Mr. Dominguez, 39, taking a breath. “It was very tough.” He added, “I didn’t feel alone, because I knew a lot of people like me were doing it.”

The pandemic has ravaged Europeans and Americans alike, but the economic pain has played out in starkly different fashion. The United States has relied on a significant expansion of unemployment insurance, cushioning the blow for tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs, with the assumption that they will be swiftly rehired once normality returns. European countries — among them Denmark, Ireland, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Austria — have prevented joblessness by effectively nationalizing payrolls, heavily subsidizing wages and enabling paychecks to continue uninterrupted.

As cases increase at an alarming rate in much of the United States, the reliance on an overwhelmed unemployment system — the next infusion of money perpetually subject to the whims of Washington — leaves Americans uniquely exposed to a deepening crisis of joblessness. Europe appears poised to spring back from the catastrophe faster, whenever commerce resumes, because its companies need not rehire workers.

“You just send an email, and that’s it — you’re ready to go,” said Jonathan Rothwell, principal economist at Gallup, the American polling firm, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There’s no recruitment or negotiation.”

Some have argued that the differing approaches are functionally equivalent. European taxpayers are writing checks to employers who wind up paying workers. American taxpayers are furnishing relief through unemployment payments.

“I think it’s a real open question,” said Jason Furman, an economic adviser to President Barack Obama, “which of those will be better in the long term. They might be more similar than everyone thinks.” He was speaking during a recent discussion with Stephanie Flanders of Bloomberg.

But conversations with recipients of government relief in Europe and the United States reveal one substantial difference: In many European countries, wage subsidies have enabled paychecks to continue without a hitch, sparing people the anxiety of managing bills while awaiting relief. For Americans, hellish tangles with bureaucracy have become legion as tens of millions of people have deluged the unemployment system, crashing websites, tying up phone systems and standing in parking lots for hours outside benefits offices.

Far from an accident, this reflects the values animating American capitalism, in which social safety nets are minimal, leaving people to struggle with scant relief. The pandemic “exposes the fact that we have a system problem,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist. “A system where 50 percent of the people are on the edge is not a resilient system.”

The American Paycheck Protection Program has similarities to Europe’s wage subsidy programs. It has directed $520 billion in loans through private banks to small businesses. If American employers limit layoffs, they do not have to repay the money. Five million businesses have received funding, but bewildering rules and technical glitches have limited broader participation.

Washington also increased standard unemployment benefits by $600 a week, often giving recipients more than they earned in their jobs. But in requiring that workers transition from payrolls to the unemployment system, the government effectively consigned people to torturous delays.

Jobless data reveals how the pandemic has assailed American workers with exceptional force. The unemployment rate in the United States has soared nearly eight percentage points since February — it registered 11.1 percent in June — while France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands have all limited increases in the jobless rate to less than one percentage point.

“By and large, the European social model has proved quite adept and robust for this kind of crisis,” said Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

None of this offers guarantees about the future. In many countries, the United States included, pandemic aid programs are set to expire in coming months. Given persistent fears about the virus, an abrupt elimination of relief would be damaging.

In Britain, nine million workers have officially been furloughed while continuing to draw paychecks under a government program. But as many as a fourth are at risk of being fired when the government reduces the subsidy in September, according to Bloomberg. In the United States, extra jobless benefits expire at the end of July, prompting worries that the removal of this aid will spell a loss of spending, further damaging businesses and producing another spike in unemployment.

For Americans, the risks are heightened by the fact that the nation lacks a national medical system — a feature taken as a given in Europe — leaving most people reliant on their jobs for access to health care.

For now, European programs are insulating workers from the consequences.

In Spain, the terrifying spread of the virus prompted the government to order a halt to nonessential services in mid-March.

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