Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Pandemic-related jobless benefits impede recovery

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It’s time for Washington state to require people receiving unemployment benefits to look for work again.

And with many employers struggling to fill positions, it’s time to consider removing the $300 weekly unemployment bonus that those who are jobless are receiving.

Loosening requirements and providing additional funds made sense during the early days of the pandemic. At that time, many people found themselves suddenly unemployed due to government fiats made in efforts to keep the coronavirus from spreading, to prevent hospitals from being overrun, and ultimately, to save lives. They helped many people who were more vulnerable to the virus’ effects stay safe, rather than having to risk their health to generate income.

The additional benefits remained justified as the pandemic wore on and government restrictions ping-ponged in correspondence to rising and falling positive COVID-19 tests. Jobs in some sectors remained elusive, with barriers to employment complicated further for many working parents by shuttered schools and a dearth of day care options.

Now, however, vaccination supply outpaces demand, and the state’s economy is scheduled to reopen fully by June 30. Already, employers across most sectors of the economy are struggling to find workers needed to ramp up again. In Spokane County, the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% in March, the same rate as March 2020 and the lowest rate since the pandemic hit the U.S. As a reminder, the jobless rate shot up to 16.4% the following month. The recent rate, coupled with surging job postings, suggests a return to a healthier job market.

However, the total workforce in Spokane County decreased by an alarming 14,000 people during the 12-month period ending in March. That drop in participation, coupled with anecdotal stories of businesses struggling to maintain working hours because of staffing shortages, suggest some people simply aren’t returning to work.

The state’s neighbors to the east are reporting returns to pre-pandemic job markets—and are taking actions because of it.

The Idaho Department of Labor announced in late April that it would require unemployment insurance claimants to prove they’re looking for jobs. The state reported a 3.2% unemployment rate in March and boasted year-to-year job growth. With employment exceeding pre-pandemic levels, it made sense for Idaho to reinstate job-search stipulations.

The state of Montana took it further. In addition to requiring job searches for those receiving unemployment benefits, the Treasure State is ending its participation in the federal unemployment-benefit program, which provides the $300 additional weekly payment, instead offering return-to-work bonuses to unemployed individuals who return to the workforce.

The state is reporting a 3.8% unemployment rate, which is near pre-pandemic lows.

Jobless rates in Idaho and Montana might be lower than they are in Washington state, but they are similar in that they are near pre-pandemic levels.

While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee might be on the opposite end of the political spectrum from his counterparts in those nearby states, he should consider taking a similar approach to them this time. Businesses and consumers alike are eager to return to some semblance of normal in the Evergreen State, but the economy can’t recover fully without the talent businesses need to grow again.

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