by Colleen Koperek
‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes, but any restaurant worker will tell you the second half of that statement might not be so true. From unpredictable wages for tipped workers to impossible-to-navigate unemployment insurance, restaurant workers have long had to deal with their fair share of fiscal uncertainty.
Molly Kivi, of Medford, Mass., hopes to change that. “I want to show a bunch of lawmakers, ‘Hey, it’s possible to take care of people first,’” Kivi explained in a Zoom interview from her kitchen table.
Kivi has a lifetime of experiencing firsthand the pain of dealing with an improperly instituted unemployment system. Her father worked in an industry that relied on seasonal unemployment, and her early exposure to the UI process inspired her to study accounting, with the goal of working in tax reform. She has also worked as a bartender and event planner, and continued to do so when she became disillusioned with the realities of working as an accountant.
“I love restaurants,” Kivi said. “Restaurants are full of people that can feel, and can think and collectively work together. We understand how to spot opportunity, and how to see a problem, work around it and come up with the solution really fast. As a restaurant person, you have to practice this every single day, while understanding how to connect with people.”
Then, as with 2.4 million million of other restaurant employees, Kivi found herself unemployed in March 2020. However, her tax reform background, previous experience with the UI system and empathetic problem-solving skills honed as a restaurant worker made her uniquely prepared to meet the moment.
“This was one of those times where a lot of people are going to experience that pain and suffering that I was so aware of. I needed to step up to the plate and I had to be that person to just start researching this and start, like alarming the emergency bell, knowing that this is going to be a problem.”
Kivi sprung into action and the Unemployment Tax and Benefit Reform campaign was born. The overall initiative is to make the unemployment tax on employees proportional, instead of regressive, and to create a sliding scale benefit calculation.
If you read that sentence and thought um, what? You are not alone! Kivi patiently walked me through the unemployment insurance tax structure in Massachusetts:
“There’s a pot of money. To get money into it, employers pay a tax levied on their employee’s salaries. Now, out of that pot of money, people receive benefit payments when they become unemployed, and those payments are called benefit payments. Currently, the tax that fills up that trust fund is regressive in nature, which means that those that have less money are taxed at a higher effective tax rate. The taxable wage base is $15,000. So, what happens is any employee, whether that employee is being paid $30,000 a year, or whether they’re being paid $150,000 a year, only the first $15,000 of that of their salary is being taxed. That means that this pot of money is being filled up by the most vulnerable of businesses and by the most vulnerable of employees.
On the other end, when you receive unemployment, the benefit calculation is a flat 40% after taxes of the claimants’ salary. This type of benefit calculation for the lowest wage earners, that aren’t even making a living wage, cuts their purchase power even more significantly.”
What Kivi’s campaign aims to do is help the most vulnerable paying into and receiving unemployment benefits. If the whole purpose of a social program is to prevent people from entering the poverty cycle, looking at it holistically will make sure those who are closest to poverty won’t be unduly burdened by effectively paying a higher rate, while simultaneously receiving a lesser amount of money. A worker making $30,000 a year would currently only be eligible for benefits for a salary of $18,000, whereas one making $90,000 would be eligible for $54,000. It’s easy to see how the regressive nature hurts those making less.
“You’re looking at a math problem, and to know how to answer the problem, you have to know all the constraints,” Kivi went on to add. “If we solve this math problem in an equitable manner, we’re all actually happy.”
She understands that there’s more to upending the exploitative nature of capitalism than simply plugging in numbers. At this point in the interview, Kivi looks down and becomes quiet.
“May I say something that can be a little triggering to some people?” she asks hesitantly. I assure her she can go on if she feels comfortable.
“I know of two suicides. People who had issues with getting their benefit payments. Because the administrative burdens, and because the payments were too low, it was overwhelming. The state wasn’t there for them. They reached out for help, and help didn’t come.
“I think the system is built on oppression. I think that hiding information is necessary for oppression to fester,” Kivi added, her voice growing stronger. “One of the reasons why I am opening up paperwork for a 501(c)(4) is to take that power for the little guy, because there is a vacuum in the market. A lot of people don’t have time to dig into tax law.”
Kivi has started a social welfare organization to this end. Her goals extend beyond the immediate need to restructure the unemployment benefits system and include educating small business owners and workers to drive civic engagement. Kivi has interacted with lawmakers throughout this process, and she credits her hospitality background as instrumental in her success.
“I have to think like, ‘okay, I have to connect with so many different people, like, business leaders, lobbyists, lawmakers, workers, unemployed families, young, old, and everybody. Everybody’s coming from a different perspective, and everybody’s looking out for themselves.’ It’s shown me how to connect more with people and that we all just want a common goal: we want to be happy, be fed and feel safe.”
During this process, however, Kivi noticed that many lawmakers did not have answers to her questions. “I realized that they don’t understand the laws that they’re voting on, which is scary. It kind of freaks me out when people in charge don’t know the rules. Because I’m like, how is society functioning? Oh wait, it’s on the backs of the worker.” She likens the process to a restaurant that doesn’t have a system in place for communicating 86’d items.
Creative problem solving comes naturally to Kivi, who also points out ways that undocumented workers, who make up 10% of the restaurant industry of the restaurant industry, could have received benefit payments. “They need and deserve their benefit payments. If their taxes are collected they should be eligible for benefits.” She explains that currently, benefit payments are based on social security numbers, not tax information. States are incentivized to follow statues through grants given by the federal government. “If we, as a state, decided hey, we want to take care of people, we want to make sure that people paying into the system are getting the benefits,” the state could simply refuse the federal grant.
Kivi is working to make sure the concept of hospitality and taking care of the guest extends to the worker as well.
She has set up a website to collect stories from Massachusetts residents who have received UI payments and get their advice on how the funds should be distributed. Kivi wants input because she freely admits she doesn’t know all the answers. “Nobody knows all the answers. I want this to be a model of how people get more engaged with the legislative process, because it should be coming from the ground up.”
Eventually, Kivi will share these stories with state legislators at hearings for the Commission to Study Unemployment Solvency to provide real-life examples of how their processes help or hurt their constituents. She has also created a petition, a newsletter and a list of resources, all with the goal of getting people engaged with the legislative process.
“I think that if we focus on the human aspect of laws and taking care of the individual, everything else will fall into place,” said Kivi