Cutting of unemployment benefits by Gov. Reynolds won’t solve the worker shortage in Iowa

The solution to Iowa's worker shortage isn't cutting off pandemic-related unemployment assistance.

I’ve worked almost my entire life, from collecting dimes as a small child for household chores like making my bed, to babysitting as a junior high student and summer farm work for my grandparents before I was old enough to get a “real job.”

Sometimes, there were things I’d rather be doing. In high school, I gave up basketball after my sophomore year because the varsity coach made it a requirement for the team to also run track. (He also coached the track team.) I didn’t mind the exercise but the daylong track meets would have interfered with my part-time restaurant job. It was a difficult choice, but I decided to work.

So part of me understands why some Iowans cheered Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to end extended federal unemployment benefits in June instead of letting the program run out in September. Her assertion that there are a lot of open jobs in Iowa for people who want to work is correct. There are a lot of open jobs. It seems reasonable to suggest that ending extended benefits is part of returning to normal after the pandemic.

But like most political rhetoric, it’s far too simple to reflect reality. I know that not only because I listen to people but because I’ve also had the experience of being unemployed. In the early 1990s, I worked for a newspaper in St. Louis that abruptly closed, with no warning. I was devastated, and terrified. I had no support system in that community — my family was all back in Iowa. The only friends I had in town worked for the paper, and they were also out of a job. All of my co-workers were suddenly competitors for the few comparable positions in the market.

Things could have been far worse. Some of my former colleagues had families to support and spouses who were also job-searching. Some had just bought houses. I was still single, although my boyfriend and I had become engaged just the week before my layoff. (We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary last month, so we survived the experience.)

More importantly, my former employer not only provided a generous severance, but the state of Missouri also had a robust plant-closing law. The combination gave me six months at full pay to find a new job, without having to apply for unemployment benefits.

I set a deadline for myself to find a job by the end of that six months. Knowing how much time I had was crucial. It allowed me to explore my options thoroughly and wait for the right opportunity, instead of panicking and leaping into the first available position. By the end of the six months, I was in a job that matched my skills and experience and advanced my career, with comparable pay to the one I’d left.

I don’t know where I’d be now if someone had arbitrarily decided to cut that period short after it began. While my circumstances would have spared me from taking a low-wage, fast-food gig to make ends meet, I certainly could have felt pressured into taking a job I didn’t particularly want, with lower pay and outside of my preferred location. And I would have quit that job the second something better came along, as unfair and costly as that might have been to the new employer.

That’s what makes me queasy about Reynolds’ decision to yank the rug out from under thousands of Iowa families. There were over 26,000 Iowans receiving ongoing unemployment benefits as of last week, according to Iowa Workforce Development. While they’ll still get state benefits after mid-June, many of these people were counting on that extra $300 a week to help bridge the way to a new job.

As much as we’d all like to get back to normal, nearly half of the more than 3,000 new jobless claims in Iowa were COVID-19 related, according to Iowa Workforce Development. People are still hurting. Slashing their benefits will not get them back to work sooner.

Democrats claim there’s no evidence many people are refusing to accept work because of extended unemployment. Business leaders, however, cite that as the main reason they can’t find workers. The problem is particularly widespread in the restaurant industry, according to Jessica Dunker, Iowa Restaurant Association president.

She said 92% of her industry’s employers say they can’t hire enough people. “And our survey data shows that about 90% of operators cite enhanced unemployment as the number one reason they can’t get people back,” Dunker said Friday on “Iowa Press,” which aired on Iowa PBS.

But Dunker also acknowledged there aren’t enough unemployed people in Iowa to make up the deficit in workers. Business owners may not be willing to recognize or admit that there are other reasons they can’t compete with unemployment. And reducing benefits won’t make much difference to people who simply refuse to get a job, anyway.

People make decisions about returning to work that fit their individual situations, which aren’t so easily pigeonholed. Some Iowans need assistance while they go back to school for a new career. Others can’t afford child care. Some may have health conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated, and they aren’t able to go back to offices that don’t require masks or social distancing. Other loyal workers are waiting for their original employer to reopen and hire them back. A few may still be dealing with physical and mental symptoms from having COVID.

That extra federal payment was also intended to help keep the economy running while people are looking for work. It helps make sure people can buy essentials, pay their rent, and maybe not have to give up their cell phones, internet service and vehicles that they’ll need to find and hold a job. That benefits the landlords, the grocery stores, the phone companies, the gas stations and all their employees.

Reynolds said employers have complained about people applying for jobs, as they must do to receive unemployment benefits, and then not showing up for interviews. That happens regardless of whether job seekers are getting extended unemployment, because some people are rude like that. It’s a waste of time and money for the business, but not as big of a waste as it would be to hire someone who doesn’t want to be there and who leaves as soon as they can. Businesses that can’t compete with unemployment ought to rethink their compensation and workplace climate.

Iowa had a workforce shortage before the pandemic. Eliminating extra benefits won’t change the fact that this is a low-wage state with dying rural communities, a lack of affordable housing and child care, limited access to health care, waning educational opportunities, a filthy environment and a cultural climate that turns off young, creative professionals. Too bad the actual solutions to those problems don’t lend themselves to the simplistic and divisive political rhetoric that gets Reynolds invited on FOX News shows.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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