The good news is that the economy is reopening with a flourish. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a record 9.3 million jobs were available at the end of April, and unemployment claims have dropped precipitously.
The bad news is that many companies don’t have enough workers to fill those openings. As The Columbian reported in May: “Businesses throughout Vancouver are reporting a labor shortage that’s reaching a crisis mode for restaurants and hotels. They can’t find workers to fill lower-wage positions.”
In order to fully invigorate Washington’s economy as the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Gov. Jay Inslee should consider two options.
One is to reject the stipend of an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Since early in the pandemic, the federal government has provided that amount, adding it to state assistance for those who are out of work.
The payments were necessary to absorb the economic shock of the pandemic, helping suddenly displaced workers put food on the table and pay for necessities. Now, those payments have outlived their usefulness. While state assistance must continue — as it does with or without a pandemic — the additional federal payment disincentivizes work.
The program is scheduled to continue through September 6. But at least 25 states have opted out of the additional payments or made plans to do so before the deadline.
Inslee will undoubtedly reject that suggestion. But another recommendation might be more to his liking: Provide incentives for people to return to work. This would amount to using the proverbial carrot rather than the stick of removing federal unemployment supplements.
At least six states are offering return-to-work bonuses ranging from $500 to $2,000. In New Hampshire, for example, workers are eligible for $1,000 if they remain in a new job for eight consecutive weeks while being paid $25 an hour or less. In Colorado, workers starting a full-time job by June 26 can receive up to $1,600 from the state.
The lack of workers threatens to hamper the nation’s economic recovery. As the Associated Press reported: “Many of the unemployed are still holding back. Some of the jobless are likely seeking better positions than they had before the pandemic triggered widespread layoffs. Or they still lack affordable child care.”
Child care long has been an impediment to employment for many, and the pandemic has exacerbated that situation. Indeed, the nation needs to legislatively address its long-standing child care shortage, but the immediate concern is getting people to fill available jobs.
As Inslee has demonstrated through a statewide lottery for people who have received COVID-19 vaccines, incentives are part of his management playbook. The state government is offering a chance for cash and other prizes in an effort to promote vaccinations.
So why not try the ploy with jobs? “An incentive program for returning to work and an incentive program for getting vaccinated are substantially different things,” Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk told The (Tacoma) News Tribune. “Our total spending on the lottery programs is $2 million in (federal) CARES funding. I don’t know what a return-to-work incentive would cost, but it would have to be much more than that and involve more staff and agencies as well.”
Indeed. But the benefits of a fully functioning economy are priceless.