Roughly a year ago, COVID-19 upended not only our lives, but the economy, as federal and state officials implemented a series of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease. Unemployment …
Roughly a year ago, COVID-19 upended not only our lives, but the economy, as federal and state officials implemented a series of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease. Unemployment skyrocketed as businesses were told to shut down or modify their operations, and as consumers became more hesitant to get out and about.
Fortunately, thanks to vaccines and other factors, the threat of COVID-19 has waned and business is ramping back up for what’s hoped to be a strong summer.
However, as businesses have looked to hire additional staffers, Gov. Mark Gordon says they’re finding a shortage of workers. That’s one reason Gordon decided Wyoming will no longer offer extra pandemic-related unemployment assistance.
Amid the height of the lockdowns last year, Congress created a broad range of additional help for unemployed workers: authorizing additional weekly payments, extending benefits from six months to more than a year and expanding benefits to nonprofit, freelance and other normally ineligible workers.
Federal lawmakers and the Biden administration have allowed some of those benefits to continue through early September. However, Wyoming is dropping out June 19.
“Wyoming needs workers, our businesses are raring to go,” Gordon said in a statement announcing his withdrawal from the programs, saying it was critical to encourage more hiring.
“Federal unemployment programs have provided short-term relief for displaced and vulnerable workers at a tough time, but are now hindering the pace of our recovery,” Gordon said. “People want to work, and work is available.”
The decision makes a lot of sense, though it’s not without controversy.
When governors in Montana and South Carolina were the first to end the extra unemployment payments, a senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute told ABC News that it was “a huge mistake.”
“Employers are just angry that they are unable to find workers at relatively low wages,” Heidi Shierholz told ABC. “The jobs being posted are more stressful, more risky, harder jobs than they were pre-COVID. ... When the job is more stressful, then it should command a higher wage.”
There is a case to be made that some employers should pay more, particularly as the costs of goods and services continue to rise.
It is rare to find a business paying the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which breaks to about $15,000 a year for full-time work; federal data from 2019 suggests that less than 2% of businesses pay that little. Still, even $10 an hour — which equates to about $20,000 a year — is below the poverty line if that individual is raising a couple children.
Fortunately, many businesses across the country already appear to be raising pay in response to market conditions. And if the aim is to pressure businesses to pay even better wages, offering great unemployment benefits is not the way to do it. As Gov. Gordon put it, “incentivizing people not to work is just plain un-American” — and it seems likely that, in certain cases, the extra assistance surely had that effect.
How much a person can receive in unemployment depends on what they earned before losing their job. As of July 2019, those benefits in Wyoming maxed out at $508 a week for no more than 26 weeks, or $13,200. That’s generally a fraction of what a person would receive from a full-time job.
However, the equation shifted amid the pandemic. Given the unprecedented challenges posed by the shutdowns, Congress and the Trump administration approved an extra $600 per week, later revising it to the current $300. That means some people could potentially receive a better-than-average income on unemployment. And who’s going to be enthusiastic about going back to work when they can make more money not working?
To be clear, there are many Wyomingites who, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs last year and have struggled to find work. A total of 868 people in Park County were searching for work two months ago, according to state data, making for a 5.9% unemployment rate.
Losing a job is tough in itself, and finding a comparable position with comparable pay can be a struggle, with every situation unique. But on the whole, we believe Gov. Gordon’s decision to stop offering the extra unemployment benefits was the right thing to do.
The Department of Workforce Services remains available to help individuals find jobs, and we hope businesses are ready to pay livable wages. Because we need to get Wyoming back to work.