Pritzker Won’t Cut Improved COVID Unemployment Benefits As Employers Claim Labor Shortage

Unemployed Illinois will continue to receive an additional $ 300 in improved weekly benefits in the event of a pandemic, Governor JB Pritzker said on Wednesday, even as Republican-led states across the country scramble to end those benefits. earlier, claiming they discouraged people of working age from finding employment. .

“Our job here is to make sure we create jobs and help people rebuild the lives they had before the pandemic, so we’re not going to tear the rug out from under people,” Pritzker said. to reporters at an unrelated event. Wednesday.

The governor’s comments came hours before one of the state’s main trade groups representing employers sent Pritzker a letter calling for an early end to the increased unemployment benefits, which will expire on September 6.

In his letter, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association President and CEO Mark Denzler cited data from the state’s Department of Employment Security showing about 358,800 fewer Illinois workers in the workforce. state work in March compared to March 2020, when the pandemic began. Denzler attributes this labor shortage to the additional $ 300 in weekly COVID unemployment benefits, meaning a person without dependents in Illinois can receive the equivalent of more than $ 19 from the hour.

“We simply cannot allow able-bodied workers to stay away when there are hundreds of thousands of jobs available,” Denzler wrote. “While the additional federal benefits clearly served a purpose … Illinois’ economy will not fully return to normal when conditions favor refusal to return to work.”

A growing number of states with Republican governors have announced that they will no longer accept federal COVID unemployment funds for improved benefits. This follows a disappointing jobs report earlier this month, revealing that the US economy added just 266,000 jobs in April, despite forecasts the number could be 1 million or more.

President Joe Biden, however, dismisses this argument, saying Monday that “Americans want to work.”

“I know there has been a lot of talk since Friday’s report that people are being paid to stay home rather than go to work,” Biden said. “We don’t see much evidence of this …I think the people who claim Americans won’t work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people.

The Federal Congress of the CARES Act, passed in the early weeks of the pandemic last year, provided for improved COVID unemployment benefits to the tune of an additional $ 600 per week. But this benefit ended at the end of July. In December, a $ 900 billion stimulus package provided for an additional 11 weeks of enhanced unemployment benefits for an additional $ 300 per week, but the American Rescue Plan Biden signed in March extended those benefits until September.

But the president also said on Monday that the federal government specify that anyone affected by unemployment who is offered a suitable job must accept the job or lose their unemployment benefits. “

Since the start of the pandemic, Illinois residents seeking unemployment benefits have not had to comply with the state’s usual requirements. that they must actively seek full-time work. Last year, Pritzker issued an executive order removing the requirement, and Denzler told NPR Illinois that the waiver was needed when many businesses were shut down during the early months of the pandemic and workers suffered massive layoffs, and was still reasonable as the economy stagnated due to COVID. wore on.

But now that more than 57% of Illinois’ population aged 16 and over have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and companies are desperate to hire workers, Denzler has said it is time to end this exception.

However, not all economists and researchers agree with Denzler and the Republican governors’ thesis that unemployment benefits deter people from returning to work.

Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois – Chicago, said that the argument that generous unemployment benefits prevent people from finding jobs is a “thinly veiled sentiment. Similar to the long-debunked theories that welfare recipients are “lazy.”

Gutelius, who has spent years researching warehouse workers in particular, says people face long-standing systemic problems in the U.S. economy. Gutelius told NPR Illinois that she believes workers from all walks of life in recent years – but especially during the pandemic – have opened their eyes to three problems: jobs with wages so low they are unlivable, lack of affordable child care and the lack of paid time off in many jobs, especially low-wage jobs.

These three questions are not just theoretical problems, said Gutelius; these are real obstacles to the reintegration of people into the workplace, especially people of color and women. Initial reports of job losses linked to the pandemic found women and minorities bearing the brunt of layoffs and unemployment, and as COVID dragged on, economists predicted permanent departures of the workforce. work for many women, attributed to the lack of childcare as schools and daycares closed.

“We cannot just blame individuals when, at the end of the day, there is not the necessary infrastructure, especially for women and low-paid workers and people of color to return. [the workforce]Said Gutelius. “What are you going to do with your kids if you don’t earn enough from your job to pay for child care? It is a mathematical question. It is not a question of the desire to work or not. “

And while more than a quarter of Illinois residents are now vaccinated against COVID, Gutelius says health and safety is always on the minds of workers.

“It almost goes without saying: we are still in a pandemic,” she said, adding that by September, when improved unemployment benefits expire, Illinois could be closer to immunity. collective.

But the state is heading for a full economic reopening in less than a month, according to Pritzker’s reading of Illinois’ current COVID measures. And Denzler’s letter underlines this, saying employers are facing a “crisis” without workers being prepared to return to work.

Denzler said he’s heard from companies willing to pay more than $ 25 an hour, but with little success in hiring. As long as people receive improved unemployment benefits, he said, Illinois would continue to face a “severe labor shortage.”

Gutelius, however, asserts that employers claiming there is a “labor shortage” often mask something else about the job market.

“In the 12 years that I have been interviewing warehouse employers, almost everyone will tell me that there is a labor shortage, whatever the aspect of the job market, regardless of the fact that wages have actually gone down in this sector. over the past 12 years, ”she said.

Raising wages and the quality of employment would go a long way in encouraging people to return to work.

But Denzler said if that were true, Illinois wouldn’t have thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs open – jobs that pay an average of around $ 80,000 a year in wages and benefits, and 92% of which come with it. employer-sponsored health care, he said. . Many manufacturing employers are also willing to give on-the-job training to new hires, Denzler said – so not having experience shouldn’t be a barrier either.

But Denzler admitted that the industry may be grappling with long-held notions about what manufacturing is and who works in those jobs.

“There has always been a problem with the perception that manufacturing is dirty and unsafe,” Denzler said. “It’s not – it’s clean and high-tech, diverse and sustainable…[The perception issue is] a systemic problem that we must solve. “

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