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BRENDA BLAGG: Hiring people back

Unemployment pay, other options seen as challenges by Brenda Blagg | June 9, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The last of the $300 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance benefits the federal government has been underwriting in Arkansas is due out later this month.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced earlier the state will end the benefits to Arkansans on June 26, asserting that the extra benefits are keeping too many of the state's citizens from seeking jobs.

The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March as a response to covid-19's impact on the U.S. economy, included funding for states to boost their normal unemployment payments by $300 a week. Last year, in the first federal economic response to the pandemic known as the CARES Act, Congress authorized $600 in added weekly benefits, but that expired in July.

More than 40,000 jobs have gone unfilled, he said, as families rely on the federal supplements instead of re-entering the workforce.

Arkansas is one of several states to take this stance as employers are having problems finding and keeping workers in the re-emerging economy.

The supplements helped about 50,000 Arkansans who have received the payments, said Hutchinson, who said it served a good purpose helping Arkansans through a tough time.

"Now we need Arkansans back on the job so that we can get our economy back to full speed," he said.

The federal benefit program is set to end Sept. 6 but is interfering with the ability of employers to fill available jobs, Hutchinson said as he directed an end to it.

Montana and South Carolina had earlier announced their intent to stop the extra benefits in their states. Other states, at least those with Republican governors, were expected to do the same; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is urging an early end to the program nationwide. The chamber maintains that such federal unemployment programs pay people not to work and dampens what ought to be a stronger jobs market.

Arkansas was the third Republican-led state to opt out early, but the list now includes Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Idaho, Tennessee and North Dakota, too.

The Democratic senator who chairs the Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the trend "deeply disturbing" recently, asserting that millions of the nation's workers haven't been able to return to work yet.

He and others cite the absence of accessible, affordable child care as one impediment to workers taking jobs as the nation struggles to reboot its economy.

Competition for workers among employers is another obvious factor.

Workers who lost jobs, for example, in the restaurant and hospitality industry during pandemic-triggered shutdowns, are opting for work in other industries where they don't have to be so close to people and where jobs may be more secure and offer better hours or wages.

Hutchinson maintains that employers are providing incentives and good wages to prospective workers and that the state can assist people in finding a job and securing child care.

The state's Senate Republican Caucus supported the governor's actions, issuing a written statement recently that said the senators "have heard from our constituents and job creators for the last few months about the difficulties of hiring and retaining their workforce."

What's happening in Arkansas is reflective of developments on the national stage, where members of Congress continue to negotiate changes with President Joe Biden's administration on what he calls an American jobs plan.

The president, acknowledging growing concerns about unemployment payments' impacting hiring, said recently that the White House will make it clear that Americans receiving the payments must take a job if offered a "suitable" one or lose those benefits.

He and other Democrats remain convinced, however, that people are still hurting and need continued help to recover from the pandemic's continuing impact on their lives.

And so, the political debate goes on as storefront windows fill with "help wanted" signs and policy makers argue over how to respond.

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