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Biden Weighs in on Unemployment Pay Blamed for Worker Shortage

May 10, 2021, 8:19 PM

President Joe Biden said that the federal response to complaints from employers of a worker shortage will include a clarification that workers can’t turn down a suitable job offer and still get unemployment benefits.

The U.S. Department of Labor was directed to send a guidance letter to state unemployment agencies this week clarifying the rules about accepting suitable job offers, according to a White House fact sheet. It’s part of a broader effort Biden laid out in a Monday press conference, aimed at encouraging people to return to work while providing support to those who still need it.

Although the policy is in line with existing law, it could further pressure states to strike a careful balance in administering benefits, after the Labor Department instructed them in February to let people continue getting unemployment benefits if they decline a job due to unsafe working conditions.

“We still have 8 million fewer jobs than we did when the pandemic started, and for many of those folks unemployment benefits are a lifeline. No one should be allowed to game the system, and we’ll insist the law is followed. But let’s not take our eye off the ball,” Biden said.

The definitions of a “suitable” job offer vary from state to state, sometimes requiring that the job provides wages comparable to the person’s previous job and sometimes stipulating specific health and safety standards.

Biden’s remarks came in response to a weaker-than-expected April jobs report Friday, after which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for a halt to the extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits as a way to get people back to work.

Restaurants and other businesses have been claiming that more-generous-than-usual jobless benefits are discouraging people from applying for jobs, while progressive economists say the jobs data suggest low-wage service workers are returning but may be held back somewhat by public health and child-care concerns.

Call for ‘Fair Wages’

At the same time, the president urged businesses to “do their part” by helping workers get vaccinated and offering attractive wages and benefits—particularly after businesses received over $1 trillion in federal relief last year.

“My expectation is that, as our economy comes back, these companies will provide fair wages and safe work environments, and if they do they’ll find plenty of workers,” Biden said.

The governors of Arkansas, Montana, and South Carolina last week said their states will stop participating in the enhanced federal benefits by the end of June—three months earlier than the federal programs are due to expire. Alabama joined that list on Monday. Those programs include the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers and self-employed people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment, as well as the extra $300 per week.

Biden on Monday also said the DOL will coordinate with states on resuming work-search requirements for unemployment recipients. States suspended the requirements temporarily last year in response to the pandemic and record-high jobless claims, and 29 states have resumed them, according to the White House.

The department also will encourage state agencies to take advantage of short-time compensation and partial unemployment programs, while also ramping back up their reemployment and workforce development services that have operated on a limited basis during the pandemic.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

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