Government Can Help Get People Back To Work

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Minnesota is opening. It almost feels like the pre-COVID-19 days. People are out and about; the bars and restaurants are full of people laughing and socializing. We have had high school proms at our schools. Graduations are coming soon. The only bothersome affliction for spring sports has been the weather.

Only the masks worn by wait staff, people going into businesses, and medical facilities, and still on some in their vehicles reminds us these are not ordinaryl times yet.

Our businesses are also aware that COVID-19’s silent hold on the economy still runs deep. It’s reflected in the community newspapers with classified ad pages full of help-wanted advertisements. We hear their pleas for workers on the radio and television. They are all over the internet. Jobs are posted on flyers around the community.

Businesses and industries are conducting job fairs trying to draw potential candidates for their openings. They are offering higher wages and signing bonuses.

Despite all their efforts, despite our feeling that things are returning to normal, businesses can’t find the workers they desperately need. It is holding them back from sharing fully in the recovery.

To many employers, there is one culprit principally responsible for people not going back to work – the unemployment benefits are too good. The unemployed would rather sit home and collect a check that pays more than they earn working.

According to Forbes magazine, unemployment payments in Minnesota average $709 per week or $17.73 per hour. More than a quarter of the unemployed workers earn more from their government checks by one statistic than in a payroll check.

Last Friday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for lawmakers in Washington “to immediately stop paying out-of-work Americans an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits.” The conservative organization that represents American businesses said boosting “government aid is giving some recipients less incentive to look for work.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor released a disappointing jobs report showing only 266,000 jobs were added last month. In both February and March, America added close to 1 million workers.

“The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market,” Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, said. “We need a comprehensive approach to dealing with our workforce issues and the very real threat unfilled positions poses to our economic recovery.”

It is too easy to just blame unemployment benefits. Other factors come into play that have a widespread influence in keeping people out of the labor force.

Many still fear contracting COVID-19. They fear bringing it home to their families. There is worry about the new, more infectious, and deadly variants circulating in the U.S.

Some families still have young children who have not returned to school.

Working parents are having difficulty finding daycare facilities. When a daycare has a child exposed to COVID-19, it causes it to be temporarily shut down, disrupting the ability to reliably go back to work. These factors make it particularly hard for women to return to work.

More than 60 percent of Minnesotans have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Public health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and running into a stubborn percentage unwilling to get the shot. These people also frustrate efforts to get the unemployed back to work.

COVID-19 has made it even harder for businesses in rural Minnesota, already hit hard by an aging workforce and declining population, to find workers.

Many job openings are in places where the workers didn’t exist to fill the openings even before COVID-19. It is difficult to convince people to relocate. They may be tied to their place by a house, family, friends, culture, race, or their spouse has a good job. Many prefer large cities to small towns.

Back when the pandemic was causing massive layoffs in America as businesses were forced to shut down, the federal government implemented a $600 per week federal unemployment program. During that time, University of Minnesota labor economist Aaron Sojourner told the Star Tribune that a study of the payments and their impact on willingness to work didn’t show a strong link.

“It will take many months of economic recovery, vaccine progress, and rebuilding of the childcare infrastructure before (many unemployed) can find suitable work,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Associated Press. “Until then, enhanced unemployment benefits will not only sustain jobless families but continue to power a robust recovery through greater consumer spending.”

To get workers back on the job will take innovative action not punitive sanctions.

Montana’s governor announced last week that his state would stop federal unemployment as of June 30. Rather than give the money to the unemployed, the state will pay the unemployed a $1,200 bonus to go back to work. Workers must stay on the job for four weeks to keep the $1,200, and if they quit, they won’t be eligible for unemployment again.

“Montana is open for business again, but I hear from too many employers throughout our state who can’t find workers. Nearly every sector in our economy faces a labor shortage,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said. He received immediate push back from the Biden Administration. “Choosing to eliminate these critical benefits will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable,” U.S. Labor Department spokesperson Michael Trupo said.

There are progressive steps government can take:

Subsidies to help cover the costs of daycare would help workers get back on the job. Funds to finance new daycare facilities and strengthen current facilities should be made available.

Make payments to families move to a community to take a new job.

Provide a one-time check to help with rent or a house payment if they move to a community to take job.

These are just a few ideas, maybe outlandish, but we need to start thinking of ways to facilitate people getting back to work.

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