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We’re Optimizing Ourselves to Death

Mish Boyka

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Burnout is the inevitable result of our endlessly accelerating pace of life

Illustration: Jutta Kuss/Getty Images

Author’s Note: I’ve recently partnered with Project DigInThere, an online project to help people get more out of the articles they read. Project DigInThere enables authors (in this case, me) to create 3-4 question “quests” that readers (in this case, you) can review prior to reading an article. Doing so primes you with what to look for in the article, and then you can take the quest at the end of the article to test your recall. If you’re interested, you can review the quest I’ve built by clicking here, then take it after reading the article and see how you do. Or you can just read the article — it’s up to you ;).


pro·cel·er·a·tion

/prōˌseləˈrāSH(ə)n/

noun

  1. The acceleration of acceleration

— excerpt from The Age of Earthquakes, by Shannon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist


There’s a famous thought experiment in economics known as the “prisoner’s dilemma.” In it, two men have been caught committing a crime. Each of them is placed in a separate interrogation room and effectively has two options: confess or lie. There are three possible outcomes (the payoffs of which are illustrated in the payoff matrix below):

Outcome 1: Both confess, and both serve eight years in prison (illustrated by payoff “-8, -8” in Figure A).

Figure A: The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Credit: Author

Outcome 2: Both men lie, and both serve one year in prison (illustrated by payoff “-1, -1” in Figure A).

Outcome 3: One man confesses while the other lies. The liar serves the longest possible sentence, 10 years, while the confessor goes free (illustrated by payoff “-10, 0” in Figure A).

So, if both men lie, they both get off with a lighter sentence. That appears to be the full story — except it isn’t.

The importance of the prisoner’s dilemma is understanding that in selecting a strategy, each player should account for the effectiveness of that strategy given what the other player might do.

Knowing this, consider the game from the perspective of Prisoner 1. If he thinks Prisoner 2 will lie, he should confess, because serving zero years in prison is better than serving one. If he thinks Prisoner 2 will confess, he should also confess, because serving eight years in prison is better than serving 10. In this situation, confessing is both players’ dominant strategy, the strategy they should play regardless of what the other player does.

This thought experiment illustrates how two self-interested individuals with a clear way to maximize their collective utility fail to do so. It also happens to be a fantastic way to understand our current moment. Millennials — not all of us, but many of us — are burned out, and the prisoner’s dilemma can shed light on why.

Unfortunately, it also sheds light on a distressing conclusion: Barring some miracle of human coordination, our quest to optimize our lives will never slow, let alone stop. If anything, it will accelerate.


Imagine a two-player labor market represented by the prisoner’s dilemma matrix. Now imagine both players encountered a service that would help optimize their lives. For a real-world example (and one I use), let’s take the premade meal delivery service Freshly.

Freshly claims to save people approximately two hours a week in the time they don’t have to spend grocery shopping, meal prepping, or cooking. Now imagine that both players had two choices of how they could spend those hours: either on extra leisure (e.g., sleep, Netflix, a book, etc.,) or on productivity (e.g., optimization/work).

What would each player choose?

Well, if wealth is considered freedom from busyness, or freedom to spend your time as you wish, the hour would be best spent on leisure. When forming a strategy, however — like with the prisoner’s dilemma — players must consider those strategies in the context of what the other players in the game might do. Consider the adjusted payoff matrix below:

Outcome 1: Both players use the time afforded by the service’s convenience to optimize/work harder and thus remain in a state of constant acceleration (illustrated by payoff “1, 1” in Figure B).

Figure B: The Millennial Dilemma (leisure vs. work). Credit: Author.

Outcome 2: Both players use the time afforded by the service’s convenience to relax (illustrated by payoff “8, 8” in Figure A).

Outcome 3: Player 1 uses the time afforded by the service’s convenience to optimize/work harder, while Player 2 uses it to relax. Player 1 reaps the benefits of being the only provider of labor in a market and corners it. Player 2 languishes as the world accelerates endlessly and leaves him behind (illustrated by payoff “10, 0” in Figure A).

Borrowing earlier GFN, it’s clear that given the payoffs, both players have a dominant strategy: work. If Player 2 relaxes, Player 1 should work because a payoff of 10 is better than a payoff of 8. If the Player 2 works, Player 1 should also work because a payoff of 1 is better than a payoff of zero.

Now, remember, these payoffs — and their explanations — are completely made up. In the modern era, there is no reason to be convinced that torturing yourself with additional employment is associated with any improvement in your lifestyle. And yet this is exactly how most people behave.

Thus, we arrive at our new Nash equilibrium: Both players use a service — mind you, a service built to supposedly make their lives easier and more relaxing — that ends up making their lives more stressful and complex. Put another way, both players burn out.


In a recent viral BuzzFeed article, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” Anne Helen Petersen notes this seeming paradox of leisure, specifically as it pertains to freed up time. She writes:

Attempts [by companies] to discourage working “off the clock” misfire, as millennials read them not as permission to stop working, but a means to further distinguish themselves by being available anyway.

In other words: Attempts by companies like Google or Freshly to create services that save you time misfire, as millennials see them not as services that will give them more time to relax, but as services that will increase the amount of time they’re available to work.

As employees in a hyperproductive, work-obsessed world, we’ve become acutely aware of any opportunity for optimization. Our Instagram feeds are filled with every possible combination of meal delivery service and online shopper that exists. Startups emerge daily to automate every mundane activity ever scrawled on and scratched off a legal pad.

The escalators I take to work are filled with the same desperate faces and vacant eyes I feel staring through me on the subway, except instead of standing still, they’re bounding up it, subconsciously aware that below their feet is yet another opportunity to optimize on an existing convenience. This, if anything, is a symptom of our current moment: People ignoring the luxury of a moving staircase in favor of whatever sprinting up it can transport them to faster.

There’s a kind of sick satisfaction derived from optimizing one’s own life, and there’s a good reason: Being able to do so is a status symbol. Only the most successful are free enough to spend their time finding better ways to spend their time. For those at the very top, I imagine these methods of optimization can actually exist in a vacuum; billionaires can optimize for the sake of optimizing, rather than to keep their head above water. For the rest of the world, optimization is a survival mechanism. To them, the tools that are luxuries to those at the top are good for one thing and one thing only: freeing up time that is only ever used to get more done.


The one bright side to all this productivity should be that everyone makes more money, but that’s all too often not the case. The popular narrative is that we’re all working harder, but “wages haven’t risen in 40 years,” and “purchasing power is lower now than any point in recent memory.” The economist in me has always struggled with this line of thinking. Wages are only truly relevant indicators of wealth in the sense that they allow you increased control over how you spend your time. If you’re earning a wage and a service comes along that saves you the time and effort you’d normally have to expend to access a certain good (read: Freshly for meals), that service effectively increases the value of your existing wage. Thus, even though you’re not earning any more money, you’re now wealthier.

For consumers, services like Google and Freshly do exactly this.

The media, though — and a select few politicians — prefer a different narrative. “There’s a finite amount of money in the world,” they effectively claim, “and since we’re making less, and tech companies are making more, it follows that tech companies are to blame for wage stagnation, which is a net bad, always.”

Reality, though, isn’t that simple.

Though companies like Google and Amazon do generate healthy — and yes, quite frankly absurd — returns for their executive teams and shareholders, they’re valuable because people find whatever they offer to be worth more than whatever they’re being asked to pay for it. In the case of Google, that offering is time (via frictionless access to information), and its price is effectively zero. The partial rationalization I make for stagnant wages, then, is that Google and services like it allow people to get more out of the same wage.

In this world, Google and its contemporaries are to blame for wage stagnation, but only because they’re creating a world where wages are no longer necessarily synonymous with wealth. Ergo, wage stagnation at the hands of tech companies — everyone’s favorite narrative — is a feature, not a bug.

The problem with this line of thinking, though, gets at the root of both the millennial obsession with work and the tendency to burn out.


Let’s return to the prisoner’s dilemma as it pertains to the millennial “obsession with work.” When presented with time-saving utilities (Google, Freshly, etc.) and effectively given the option to use them to either (a) relax or (b) optimize and work harder, every millennial’s dominant strategy is to optimize and work harder. This explains why it doesn’t feel like our lives are getting easier even as things have never been better. We’re adjusting our behavior in the exact same, suboptimal way to every supposed convenience modernity throws at us.

This also explains why productivity apps — which includes Amazon and Google because their services save time — proliferate like Medusa’s heads. Each one births a dozen more because, in the modern era, the best way to spend your time is finding better ways to spend your time.

Credit: Freshly. Photo by author.

Take Freshly as an example again. As we’ve noted, Freshly implicitly promises at least several hours a week in saved time by not having to “get in the grocery line,” “watch water boil,” or “plan the week’s meals.” With that hour (or two), it claims, you can “get a good workout in,” “watch the game in real time,” or “plan a movie night.”

And all of these are fantastic things, but it isn’t hard to imagine three new services arising in the near future as a response to Freshly’s success. First, a gym productivity app that claims to “shred you in half the time.” Second, an algorithmic highlight tape that captures the best moments of every game and delivers them to you. And third, a service that gives you the same level of content you’d expect from a cinema, but promises you won’t have to leave the couch. The kicker? All of these services (a) already exist, and (b) are now to Freshly exactly what Freshly was at some point to some other time-saving utility. Like Freshly, all of these new, hypothetical services also save time that can — and will — be used to find even more ways to save time, ad infinitum.

Optimization begets optimization and says we’re its beneficiaries, and in many ways, we are. But given our reliable ignorance of what our lives have conditioned us to do with free time (read: optimize and work harder), we’re better characterized as optimization’s subjects, along for the ride as our pace of life accelerates endlessly.

Yuval Harari may have put it best in Sapiens when he wrote:

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

This, at its core, is the process that leads to burnout.


A rather elegant solution to the prisoner’s dilemma was proposed years ago, after the initial thought experiment was conceived. The idea was to have players engage in repeated versions of the same game and have the payoffs of each game carry over into the next round. The rationale was simple: upon realizing the game would continue to be played, people would also realize it was in their best interest to cooperate. This is a pessimistic view of society, but it’s also an accurate one.

Humanity cooperates because historical precedent (read: repeated games) dictates doing so — with very few exceptions — is everyone’s dominant strategy.

When you play out the prisoner’s dilemma game in real life with the repeated games wrinkle added, the results are what you’d expect: People begin to cooperate. The problem with this solution is that while it works to inspire cooperation on a small scale, global cooperation is much harder.

This gets at why we make suboptimal decisions at a global scale: There isn’t yet a feasible way to facilitate repeated games between seven billion individuals. Even if there were, and we could all agree to only use time-saving utilities to relax for the rest of our lives, all it would take for the entire system to unravel would be one individual cheating on the agreement, optimizing, and working harder.

Given this impossibility of global coordination, we will continue to behave in our own self-interests. And we’ll continue to make suboptimal decisions. We’re playing a rigged game, and every time we do, our pace of life accelerates, and the world moves faster.

The acceleration of our collective pace of life is not a result of stupidity or irrationality; rather, it is a symptom of what is perfectly predicted by the prisoner’s dilemma at a global scale: Hyper-rational individuals making hyper-rational decisions on how to spend their time by launching into an inescapable arms race of productivity. Burnout is inevitable.


time snack

/tīm/ /snak/

noun

noun: time snack; plural noun: time snacks

  1. Often annoying moments of pseudo-leisure created by computers when they stop to save a file or to search for software updates or merely to mess with your mind.

— excerpt from The Age of Earthquakes, by Shannon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist


The one silver lining here is that millennials, to our credit, seem generally relieved by the knowledge that burnout has a name. Like “depression” or “anxiety,” labeling a condition everyone’s feeling legitimizes it. It also gives those experiencing it the hope that it might be addressed — because it indicates that it needs to be addressed. What is less clear is whether that hope is justified, true as it is that global coordination is impossible, and there will always be someone using the next great convenience to work harder than you.

This, more than anything, is why we will remain the burnout generation.

It isn’t because we see intrinsic value in the absurd hours we put in, though to cope, many of us have convinced ourselves we do. It’s because the rules of the game we play dictate that working those hours — and outworking everyone else — is our dominant strategy. When we see long weekends and think “work before play,” when we see Friday nights and think “sleep before clubs,” when we see escalators as accelerators and not opportunities to “just take a second,” we’re nothing more than hyper-rational prisoners making a decision that would be inaccurately characterized as a dilemma because the answer is obvious.

When given the choice, we optimize.

Then we work.


Author’s Note: Click here to take the quest mentioned at the beginning of the article. If you have feedback on it, I’d be curious to hear it as well. Feel free to email me at the email in my bio :).

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Youth sports have been hit with few coronavirus outbreaks so far. Why is ice hockey so different?

Emily walpole

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“Whole hockey teams are getting quarantined,” said Bellemore, a hockey parent, coach and president of the Manchester Youth Regional Hockey Association. “It’s getting very real.”

State officials and other authorities have been scrambling to mitigate the damage: On Nov. 12, seven governors in the Northeast banded together to ban all interstate youth hockey until at least the end of the year. The following week, health officials in Minnesota, where hockey is associated with the most clusters of any youth sport, put all sports on “pause” for four weeks. Many others have imposed new restrictions and safety measures on the game.

Youth sports — soccer, basketball, cross-country, swimming, whether held indoors or out, a source of American pride, prestige and bonding — were among the first gatherings to be allowed post-lockdown. Organizers worked closely with public health officials to make modifications that balance safety with maintaining the spirit of the games. This has worked to some extent.

While public health officials suspect off-field interactions may be contributing to community spread, there’s little hard data. In most areas, there have been few to no documented outbreaks, much less superspreader events.

Ice hockey is an anomaly. Scientists are studying hockey-related outbreaks hoping to find clues about the ideal conditions in which the coronavirus thrives — and how to stop it. Experts speculate that ice rinks may trap the virus around head level in a rink that, by design, restricts airflow, temperature and humidity.

The hockey-related cases have been especially striking, epidemiologists have said, because clubs followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits on gathering size and had numerous social distancing measures in place. In retrospect, one mistake by some clubs was that until recently masks had been required on ice for only the two players doing the initial faceoff for the puck — although many players wore clear face shields, which theoretically should have a similar effect.

“We’re watching hockey very carefully because it’s the first major sport that’s been played indoors predominantly and also during the winter months,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Demmer said the cases provide some of the first real-world evidence to support early theories about the importance of how people breathe, ventilation, and the social dimensions of transmission.

One critical way hockey differs from other contact team sports is how players do line changes — substitutions of groups of players — and are expected to sprint for nearly the whole time they are on the ice. Experts say it probably leads to heavier breathing, resulting in more particles being exhaled and inhaled.

Jose-Luis Jimenez, an air engineer at the University of Colorado, speculated that the spaces occupied by rinks keep the virus suspended, perhaps six to nine feet, just above the ice. Similar outbreaks have been documented in other chilly venues — meat processing factories and at a curling match earlier in the pandemic.

“I suspect the air is stratified,” he said. “Much like in a cold winter night, you have these inversions where the cold air with the virus which is heavier stays closer to the ground. That gives players many more chances to breathe it in.”

Timothy McDonald, public health director in Needham, Mass., said we should not rule out the way kids socialize — in locker rooms, carpools and postgame gatherings — as potential contributing factors. By late October, his area had seen at least six coronavirus cases related to sports clusters that span a wide range of ages, from fifth-graders to high school sophomores. He said some of those children played on multiple sports teams, including hockey.

“We’ve seen a lot of people mingling after the game or having discussions and parents talking and letting kids play around after the game,” he said. “There’s no way to tell from our perspective whether it’s on the ice — or waiting for 10 or 15 minutes while everyone talks after the game.”

Many unknowns

When schools shut down in March, there was huge confusion about the extent to which could get the virus and transmit it to others. Today, cases among those younger than 18 are soaring. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that more than 1.3 million children had tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic. Nearly 154,000 children tested positive from Nov. 19 to 26.

Epidemiologists are uncertain where most of these transmissions are occurring, but early reports from the United States, bolstered by more robust data from Europe and Asia, suggest they are unlikely to be related to school. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University who has been tracking coronavirus outbreaks in schools, and others say they believe informal neighborhood get-togethers, youth sports and other activities may be contributing.

Rhode Island, for example, has reported that virtual-only learners are being infected at similar rates as those attending in-person school. Oster said infection rates seem to be going up nationwide, “whether schools are open or not.”

Joseph Allen, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he believes it was a mistake for school sports to shut down, because kids need physical activity, and some for-profit businesses filling the gaps may be operating in a way where “controls may not be as stringent.”

“Not having sports in schools ultimately leads to wider contact networks for many kids,” he explained.

David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the “disease reservoir was lower” related to children in the early fall, suggesting that sports played at that time — namely, soccer — weren’t contributing much to spread. “We saw very little transmission on the field of play,” he said.

“In winter sports, you now add the indoor element. And I think there’s a fair amount of concern that hockey certainly has transmission around the game,” he said.

A PolicyLab blog post last month recommended that if youth sports leagues want to preserve any opportunity to keep playing, they need to enact mandates that strictly curtail all off-field interaction. Even then, “the potential for on-field spread may be too overwhelming to continue safely with team competition during periods of widespread community transmission, and may need to be sacrificed to preserve in-school learning options, at least until early spring or transmission rates decrease substantially.”

When children’s sports started up again this summer, tensions flared among health officials, sports providers and families over which safety measures were necessary and which were over the top. In the pandemic world, soccer was sometimes played seven-on-seven instead of 11-on-11, and with kick-ins instead of throw-ins; basketball with every other spot in free-throw lineups empty; swim practices with some kids starting in the middle of lanes to ensure adequate spacing; cross-country with runners racing in small flights to minimize interactions.

But these modifications sent some families “jurisdiction shopping” to find places that allowed games to proceed as they had before the virus outbreak, and this was a part of what happened with hockey in New England.

Hockey culture

Ice hockey is part of the culture in this area of the country. Some kids get their first skates almost as soon as they can walk, and family weekends revolve around games. In the aftermath of the first wave of the virus, clubs in numerous states, including Massachusetts, introduced safety measures such as no checking at the younger levels, physical distancing in locker rooms, and masks for the two players doing the faceoffs.

Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce said families who didn’t like those new rules took their children to play in neighboring states with fewer restrictions. And sometimes those players played on multiple teams or had siblings who did and went to school, creating very large social networks.

“It was a wake-up call,” Joyce said. He said state officials estimated that those 108 initial hockey cases amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 others potentially exposed.

In an October report, the CDC detailed a large outbreak in Florida among amateur adult hockey players on two teams that played each other but had no other contact. Investigators speculated that the indoor space and close contact increased the infection risk. They also pointed out that ice hockey “involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily.”

Surrounded by plexiglass not only to prevent errant pucks but also to keep the airflow stable so the ice can remain cold, there’s little ventilation and humidity by design in ice rinks. The surface of the ice is kept around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; the ambient air temperature, in the 50s. The Department of Homeland Security has shown in lab experiments that the virus may live at those temperatures up to two times longer in the air. At 86 degrees, for example, 99 percent of the airborne virus is estimated to decay in 52 minutes. But at 50 degrees, it would take 109 minutes.

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, said there is growing evidence that humidity may play an important role. In higher humidity, the virus attaches to bigger droplets that drop faster to the ground, decreasing the chance that someone will inhale them. The drier the air, the faster droplets will evaporate into smaller-size particles that stay in the air, increasing the concentration.

“There are some researchers have come to believe that humidification is the key above all,” he said.

Studies have shown that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the humid air, and that we’re more susceptible to viruses when the air is drier. Separately, epidemiological data from a long-term care facility has shown a correlation between lower humidity and higher infection rates.

Rubin, who is a pediatrician in addition to his public policy research job, said he worries those on the ice may be inhaling larger doses of the virus due to these environmental conditions, making it more likely they will become infected.

“It’s very hard to sort out, but you wonder if increased inoculum of the virus is an extra factor,” he said.

Demming expressed similar thoughts: “It could be infection rates are common across sports, but in a sport like hockey where you are trapping more virus in the breathable air it could result in more severe infections that end up being symptomatic.”

The National Hockey League was able to complete its playoffs after players were put in a bubble where they were tested each day, administered symptom checks and temperature screenings. No cases were reported. But conducting such rigorous screening on the roughly 650,000 amateur players and officials in the United States is an impossible task.

In Vermont, an outbreak at a single ice rink ripped through the center of the state, affecting at least 20 towns in at least four counties, and seeding other outbreaks at several schools. By Oct. 30, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) detailed the outbreak at a press briefing, 473 contacts had been associated with it.

“One case,” Scott emphasized, “can turn one event into many.”

For Tyler Amburgey, a 29-year-old coach in Lavon, Texas, north of Dallas, the coronavirus started out like a cold. But then it soon progressed to a headache, fatigue and shortness of breath. Authorities later determined that the outbreak spanned several teams and 30 people. By the third day of his illness, Aug. 29, several of Amburgey’s players had tested positive, and he was so ill that he canceled hockey practice.

Later that day his wife found him in his bed, unresponsive, and called 911. His heart had stopped, relatives told media outlets, and paramedics were unable to revive him.

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Weekly unemployment claims still trending up

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by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Weekly unemployment claims fell last week after the previous week’s spike, but have been trending up consistently the last two months. After being near their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, claims have increased beyond the usual seasonal slowdown. Claims fell 224 to 1,255 last week (up 131 from the same time last year).

As for the week’s ongoing jobless claims, for the week ending November 11, 2020, the Labor Department processed 11,337 claims, down 1,292 from the previous week and 7,237 more than the same time last year.

As for further comparison, initial Vermont claims for the week of March 21, 2020, were 3,784, up 3,125 from the week of March 14.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said at Governor Scott’s media briefing Friday that he has a lot of concern for the end of CARES Act funding and therefore the pandemic unemployment benefits and extended benefits for UI filers that came with it.

The extra benefits will cease the week after Christmas for nearly all those filers. Like the governor, he is hopeful that Congress will come up with what Scott called “bridge” funding for these programs until the Biden Administration and the new Congress can come up with a new CARES Act type funding plan. There does appear that some level of federal help will be forthcoming.

The governor is also hoping that funding includes budget relief for states, but he is less certain of that.

Harrington added that there are still some appeals and adjudications continuing regarding those pandemic benefits and that otherwise nearly all of the last of the emergency unemployment Lost Wages Assistance money has been distributed. The LWA was the last and smallest of the unemployment benefit programs.

The federal government portion of extra benefits, which is nearly all of the pandemic funding, must meet strict guidelines and there is very little the state can do to mitigate an issue.

The total number of unemployed is about 20,000, including the extra PUA claimants, which is down from the peak last spring of over 80,000 Vermonters getting some type of unemployment insurance.

There is recent discussion in Congress that a plan could be enacted during the “lame duck” session, but more likely after President-elect Biden is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, the state unemployment rate, which was the lowest in the nation before the pandemic, then spiked during the pandemic, has retreated and is now second lowest in the nation.

However, the VDOL points out that the US Census modeling has not caught up with the reality of the pandemic and Vermont’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate likely portrays a rosier economic picture than what actually exists.

Labor Commissioner Harrington said in late November that the real unemployment rate is more in the 5 percent range, and if it included the PUA, the rate is likely more in the 6-8 percent range.

He and Scott said that while the data the US Census collects is not erroneous, they disagree with the methodology the federal government is using given the altered behavior of people during the pandemic.

They said people have left the workforce for reasons related to the pandemic, like for personal safety or childcare, which then lowers the total Labor force, which works as the denominator in the calculations, thus lowering the unemployment rate.

Per federal rule, this ultimately decreases the ability of the state to offer extended UI benefits, as they were able earlier in the year.

Governor Scott said the state has been in contact with Vermont’s congressional delegation on trying to change the formula the US Census Bureau uses to determine the state’s unemployment rate.

There are also over 8,000 Vermonters on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (sole proprietors/self employed etc).

The PUA claims are not included in the unemployment rate calculation.

Harrington also addressed issues faced by the self-employed in collecting benefits.

If SPs did not file their tax returns by a certain time they missed out on some benefits. Harrington said this is a federal government rule. The state was allowed a 21-day grace period, but cases are still being adjudicated.

Also, another issue has been when a self-employed person received even one dollar of regular UI benefits, they are disallowed, again by federal rule Harrington said, from receiving any PUA.

For instance, some people who work for themselves also carry a part-time job. If they got laid off from that job and received any UI payments, then they’re stuck on the UI side and cannot get PUA.

The PUA benefits in some cases are more advantageous; for instance they will last through the end of this year. PUA claimants also can get partial payments even if they have some income.

What a new PUA looks like is unclear until and if one is signed into law. But it appears as of now that it might not include new filers after a certain time.

Scott has also extended his Emergency Order until December 15. He has said that he will continue to extend the Order as long as necessary and that we are “only half-way through” the impact of the novel coronavirus.

Also, the $1.25 billion CARES Act federal funds have all been allocated, though some budgetary shifting could still occur. The money must be spent by the end of December.

Also, the additional $600 in weekly benefits from the federal government for all unemployment programs ended July 25.

The PUA program, which is full funded by the federal government and is intended for non-regular UI workers, will last until the end of the year. They will receive regular benefits (but, again, not the extra $600).

“That $600 is concerning. I know a lot of families are counting on that to cover a lot of their expenses,” Scott said over the summer.

After a spike of claims at the beginning of the pandemic, followed by a steep decline as the economy began to reopen in April, initial unemployment claims fell consistently since the beginning of July before flattening over the last couple months.

Claims hit their peak in early April. At that point, Governor Scott’s “Stay Home” order resulted in the closing of schools, restaurants, construction and more, while many other industries cut back operations.

Over $500 million of federal money has been added to Vermont unemployment checks so far.

Since March 1, over 80,000 new claims have been filed in Vermont when including PUA.

The official Vermont March unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, but the April rate was 15.6 percent, which is the highest on record. The Vermont unemployment rate in May fell to 12.7 percent.

The US rate fell to 7.9 percent in September from 8.4 percent in August from 10.2 percent in July from 11.1 percent in June and in May from 13.3 percent. The US April rate was 14.7 percent, the highest rate since its was first calculated in 1948 and the highest unofficially since the Great Depression of about 25 percent.

Nationwide, according to the US Labor Department for the week ending November 28, initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled 712,000 last week, which was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and down from 787,000 the week before and 742,000 the week before that.

Claims generally have been falling since the early weeks of the pandemic in March. Early on in the pandemic, US claims reached 5.2 million and 6.6 million claims. Just prior to the steep job loss, there were 282,000 claims on March 14.

US GDP had its worst quarter on record as it fell 32.9 percent in the second quarter; the next worst was in 1921.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has added to the ranks of those receiving benefits, but is not counted in the official unemployment rate. The PUA serves the self-employed who previously did not qualify to receive UI benefits and might still be working to some extent.

This surge during the Great Recession for the entire year in 2009 spiked at 38,081 claims.

The claims back in 2009 pushed the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund into deficit and required the state to borrow money from the federal government to cover claims.

Right now (see data below), Vermont has $252.2 million in its Trust Fund and saw the fund decrease by a net of $3.3 million last week. Payments lag claims typically by a week. Balance as of March 1 was $506,157,247.

Vermont at the beginning of the pandemic had more than double the UI Trust Fund it did when the economy started to slide in 2007. It went into deficit and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay claims. Some states like California are already in UI deficit because of the COVID crisis.

Scott said the UI fund is not expected to run out under current projections.

“We are in a much healthier position than many other states,” Labor Commissioner Harrington has said.

Given the Trust Fund’s strong performance and the burden of unemployment taxes on employers, Governor Scott reduced the UI tax on businesses. He also announced that starting the first week of July, the maximum unemployment benefit to workers will increase about $20 a week.

While the UI Trust Fund will not fall into deficit under current trends, the governor has acknowledged that they simply cannot predict it given how economic conditions could swing if there is a second surge of COVID-19.

Still, he’s moving forward with the UI changes now because the burden on employers and employees is now.

Stories:

Vermont’s unemployment rate falls to 3.2 percent in October

Over $100 million in recovery grants awarded, still more available

Businesses to see double-digit rate decrease in workers’ comp insurance in 2020

Tax revenues finish year nearly $60 million above targets

UI tax rates for employers fell again on July 1, 2018, as claims continue to be lower than previous projections. Individual employers’ reduced taxable wage rates will vary according to their experience rating; however, the rate reduction will lower the highest UI tax rate from 7.7 percent to 6.5 percent. The lowest UI tax rate will see a reduction from 1.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

Also effective July 1, 2018, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit will be indexed upwards to 57% of the average weekly wage. The current maximum weekly benefit amount is $466, which will increase to $498. Both changes are directly tied to the change in the Tax Rate Schedule.

The Vermont Department of Labor announced Thursday, October 1, 2020 an increase to the State’s minimum wage. Beginning January 1, 2021, the State’s minimum wage will increase $0.79, from $10.96 to $11.75 per hour. The calculation for this increase is in accordance with Act 86 of the 2019 Vermont General Assembly.

This adjustment also impacts the minimum wage of “tipped employees.” The Basic Tipped Wage Rate for service or tipped employees equals 50% of the full minimum wage or $5.88 per hour starting January 1, 2021.

The Vermont Department of Labor has announced that the state is set to trigger off of the High Extended Benefits program, as of October 10, 2020. This determination by the US Department of Labor follows the recent announcement of Vermont’s unemployment rate decreasing from 8.3% in July to 4.8% in August.

Vermont’s minimum wage rose to $10.78 on January 1, 2019.

The Unemployment Weekly Report can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/. Previously released Unemployment Weekly Reports and other UI reports can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/lmipub.htm#uc

NOTE: Employment (nonfarm payroll) – A count of all persons who worked full- or part-time or received pay from a nonagricultural employer for any part of the pay period which included the 12th of the month. Because this count comes from a survey of employers, persons who work for two different companies would be counted twice. Therefore, nonfarm payroll employment is really a count of the number of jobs, rather than the number of persons employed. Persons may receive pay from a job if they are temporarily absent due to illness, bad weather, vacation, or labor-management dispute. This count is based on where the jobs are located, regardless of where the workers reside, and is therefore sometimes referred to as employment “by place of work.” Nonfarm payroll employment data are collected and compiled based on the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor. This count was formerly referred to as nonagricultural wage and salary employment.

UI claims by industry last week in Vermont are similar in percentage to those from a year ago, though of course much higher in number in each industrial category.

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Live updates: Walz urges Minnesotans to apply for COVID-19 housing assistance before Monday deadline

Emily walpole

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Here are the latest updates on COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Thursday, Dec. 3

  • MDH reported 92 COVID deaths on Thursday, the second highest in a single day
  • Minnesotans have until Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m. to request housing assistance
  • MSHSL sets tentative schedule for winter sports, depending on Gov. Tim Walz order
  • Hospital bed use down across Minnesota
  • Officials say we are at the endgame of the pandemic with upcoming vaccines
  • Experts concerned about possible surge after Thanksgiving travel, gatherings

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are urging Minnesotans to draw upon state aid for their end-of-year housing bills.

In a media call at 1 p.m. Gov. Walz highlighted efforts to “ensure Minnesotans can afford to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Minnesotans can apply for housing assistance through the United Way by calling 211. The deadline is Monday. Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Walz pointed out that Minnesota is still in the heart of the pandemic, with the second-highest daily death toll of 92 announced on Thursday.

“Throughout this entire epidemic we’ve asked Minnesotans to sacrifice,” Walz said. “We’ve asked them to do things that put their own financial security somewhat at risk, to help protect others.”

The governor said he understands that some people don’t have a safe place to go, or they’re in danger of losing that safe place, when they’re asked to stay home.

“A lot of folks are in a situation where housing security is a real concern through no fault of their own,” Walz said.

Lt. Gov. Flanagan said she is a renter and paid her rent on Tuesday. But she knows that some Minnesotans are deciding between paying their rent or mortgage, and buying groceries.

“I want folks to know that there are still resources available to help you and your family,” she said.

Flanagan said home owners should ask their lenders if they can defer payment for up to a year. And anyone can apply for housing assistance via 211unitedway.org, or by calling 211, before the deadline of Monday, Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Those who don’t need assistance should consider giving to the nonprofits that are helping others, Flanagan said, and telling their friends and family about the assistance that’s available.

“We cannot stop until all Minnesotans have a safe and affordable place to live,” Flanagan said.

Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness at Minnesota nonprofit Avivo, spoke about efforts to support the people living in homeless encampments in the Twin Cities.

“There is no one path from homelessness to permanent housing,” she said.

Bastian emphasized the importance of state and local governments partnering with the nonprofit sector to make that support possible.

Gov. Walz said it’s important to recognize the humanity in those experiencing homelessness, “not seeing it as a problem that we wish would just go away.”

The governor also said that the last week has given him hope that there will be a federal COVID-19 relief package.

There’s $100 million available in Minnesota’s Housing Assistance Program, which was announced in July. Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said there are currently requests for $67 million in assistance as of the end of November. That means there’s a little over $30 million left to dole out, and she hopes many people will still request assistance with December rent.

“We’ve got room for one more big push here to pay December bills,” she said.

Ho said that the reason the program is closing on Dec. 7 is so that state officials have time to go through all the applications, allocate funds, and then potentially reallocate any leftover money.

COVID-19 is continuing to take a significant number of lives in Minnesota, with 92 new fatalities reported by state health officials on Thursday

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic began, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,784. Thursday’s near-record comes just one day after the third-highest daily death toll of 77.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 6,166 new coronavirus cases were reported Thursday, based on results from 50,718 tests (45,885 PCR, 4,833 antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 333,626 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in Minnesota are continuing a downward trend. COVID-19 patients are currently using 1,394 non-ICU beds across the state – 29 fewer than the day prior, and 376 ICU beds – nine fewer than the previous day. Metro bed availability has improved from 1.9% to 2.3%, and ICU bed availability in the metro has grown from 4.5% to 5.7%.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,623, with 3,911 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

COVID-19 case rates now put 86 of 87 Minnesota counties under full distance learning recommendations from MDH, although community spread is only one factor of many schools are instructed to use to determine their learning model.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (62,312 cases) followed by a known contact (55,953 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (26,100 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases with 35,289 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 30,360 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 712 in 4,244 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 70,069 cases and 1,145 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 29,459 cases and 521 deaths, Dakota County with 23,564 cases and 198 deaths and Anoka County with 23,541 cases and 236 fatalities.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 80 cases and no deaths.

On Wednesday, Governor Tim Walz, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and several first responders spoke to Minnesotans to address the way the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted public safety and emergency response.

Walz said that he hopes to highlight aspects of everyday life that are impacted by the pandemic that many Minnesotans may not typically  consider. According to Walz, the workforce of firefighters, police officers and paramedics in Minnesota has been affected by COVID-19, which can impact their ability to respond to emergencies.

Harrington emphasized that this is a statewide issue, and that he is hearing every day from fire departments and police departments that are having staffing issues due to COVID-19.

He added that fire departments have been hit particularly hard.

“Ninety-nine out of the 500 fire departments in the state of Minnesota have had major COVID outbreaks,” he said. “That’s 20%.”

He stressed that the state has worked to rearrange resources and take precautions to keep departments staffed, but it won’t take much to take those departments out of service if communities do not wear masks, avoid gatherings and social distance.

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said that his department has followed CDC guidelines since the pandemic began, but he has still seen 20% of his staff take time off due to COVID-19 quarantines at some point since March, including one staff member who was hospitalized and took two months to fully recover.

Jay Wood, a firefighter in Plato, said that the Plato Fire Department has also carefully followed guidelines, but an outbreak that affected over three quarters of the department forced them to take the department out of service for a time.

“We are not alone as a small department of dealing with the virus and the staffing issues it has presented to us,” he said. “Minnesota fire services are always here to help the public, and people always ask how they can help us. The biggest thing you can do is follow the guidelines the governor and the Department of Health have set for us.”

Paramedic Ross Chavez echoed this, urging Minnesotans to follow advice from health experts to help keep first responders in the community healthy so they can continue providing fast and effective emergency services.

“Please, help my colleagues and me be there for those who need us, especially this holiday season during these trying times,” Chavez said.

Walz said that for Minnesotans frustrated by other community members not following these guidelines, he does not want to shame anyone, but it is a “moral hazard” to not wear a mask and go to large gatherings.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest everybody, that was certainly never our intention,” he said. “You don’t have to follow these rules because I said so, you don’t have to follow them because you don’t like government. You should follow them because they’re the right thing to do, they protect lives.”

Walz added that by next Tuesday, he hopes he and state health officials will have a clear timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she expects the FDA will issue an emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, and that the first wave of vaccinations could begin as soon as a week or so later.

Walz said he understands concerns around safety of the vaccine, but his assessment has been that the federal government has done a “fantastic job” of the vaccine development.

However, he stressed that though the excitement around the vaccine may indicate that the pandemic is over, we are still “in the teeth of it.”

“Let’s make sure we get all of our neighbors there, and protect those folks that make a difference,” he said.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Minnesota is proving deadly, as underscored by 77 new fatalities reported by state health officials Wednesday.

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic came to Minnesota, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,692.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 5,192 new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday, based on results from 42,737 tests (39,912 PCR, 2,825 Antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive Antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 327,477 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

In a bit of positive news, hospital bed use is down after a surge in recent days. Coronavirus patients are currently using 1,350 non-ICU beds, down 104 from Tuesday, and 354 ICU beds across the state are being used for COVID patients, down 40 from a day ago.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,378, with 3,873 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (60,808 cases) followed by a known contact (54,554 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (25,695 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases by a significant margin with 34,806 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 29,876 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 691 in 4,156 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 68,898 cases and 1,130 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 28,948 cases and 512 deaths, Anoka County with 23,196 cases and 232 fatalities, and Dakota County with 23,102 cases and 194 deaths.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 79 cases and no deaths.

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