The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Sandy Butler is a professor of social work and director of the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. John Dorrer is a mostly retired labor economist and former director of the Center for Workforce Research at the Maine Department of Labor. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network.Their views are their own and do not represent those of any group with which they are affiliated.
As unemployment rates continue to decline and thousands more jobs are added each month to the U.S. economy, a recovery from the pandemic-caused recession seems ever more likely. The economic crisis resulting from COVID-19 is frequently compared with the Great Recession caused by the crash of the housing bubble in 2008. One stark difference between the two has been the availability of federal support. Multiple federal stimulus packages have included enhanced unemployment benefits among their many programs. These expanded unemployment insurance benefits have allowed unemployed workers to continue to pay their bills, keep food on the table and avoid the deep debt unemployed workers and their families accrued during the last recession.
But lately, many people are blaming these benefits for perceived worker shortages, particularly as the hospitality and leisure industry begins to open up. Republicans are claiming the current $300 per week enhanced unemployment benefits — down from the earlier $600 per week federal benefit — creates a disincentive to employment and destroys the work ethic. This has led 24 states to block these benefits, and here in Maine, conservative commentators suggest we do the same. But economists who have studied the enhanced benefits have found that they do not stop people from going back to work.
At the height of the pandemic, we welcomed the addition of supplemental unemployment insurance payments and the provision of expanded coverage to independent contractors as these payments stimulated consumption and kept the economy afloat. Now, we condemn them as incentives that keep workers from returning to their jobs. Not so fast! There are more nuanced and complex reasons that enter workers’ decisions about employment, wages and benefits. Cutting benefits is not the answer because the labor market and Maine families are going through big changes right now — modernizing unemployment insurance and making sure people get connected to the right kind of work is.
The Legislature is currently considering a bill — LD 1564 — that will modernize the unemployment system in a number of positive ways. For example, it will increase the supplemental child benefit for the first time in 30 years, workers will no longer be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits for weeks due to leaving a job due to sudden loss of child care and a pilot navigator program will be established. Providing support for workers trying to navigate a challenging unemployment system will ensure that families will be sustained while their breadwinners take steps to reenter the workforce. By more effectively reconnecting those who have lost jobs with new employment and job training opportunities, the navigator program will not only make the labor market more efficient, but also enhance the productivity of the workforce as structural and technological change continue to transform employment in Maine.
Unemployment benefits are not slowing our economic recovery. These benefits protect workers and their families from destitution when experiencing unemployment. LD 1564 is an important step toward modernizing our unemployment system and ensuring workers receive timely and adequate benefits to facilitate their return to Maine’s workforce.
Currently there is a shakeup in the low-wage labor market where irregular hours and lack of benefits have contributed to a casual attachment for some time. Many of these workers now have choices to make. More openings across the labor market create access to new opportunities at higher wages and benefit levels. The availability of job training provides workers with opportunities to gain new skills to improve their competitiveness and incomes. Lack of availability and high costs of child care hinder a return to work.
The pandemic has upset the low-wage labor market. Affected employers need to reboot wage, compensation, recruitment and pricing strategies if they are to succeed in what will be a stiff competition for labor. After a 30-year period of wage stagnation and the erosion of minimum wages, low-wage workers finally have more bargaining power to seek better-paying jobs — a welcome development that will strengthen our economy for a long time to come.