President Joe Biden defended the American Rescue Plan’s unemployment benefits Monday and said there hasn’t been “much evidence” that unemployed people are refusing to go back to work in favor of taking an unemployment check, as several states have moved in recent days to end enhanced unemployment benefits payments as soon as next month rather than later this year, when the benefits expire.
And yet at the same time, Biden said the government would boot people off unemployment if they didn’t accept a “suitable” job, and in the process gave credence to the idea behind recent efforts to slash unemployment payments back to their pre-pandemic levels.
Biden made the comments at the White House Monday. "We're going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” the president said, adding that there were a “few COVID-19-related exceptions so people aren’t forced to choose between safety and a paycheck.”
“But otherwise, that’s the law,” Biden added. Later, he said, "No one should be allowed to game the system."
The White House said in an accompanying press release that the Labor Department will “reaffirm that individuals receiving UI may not continue to receive benefits if they turn down a suitable job due to a general, non-specific concern about COVID-19.” The White House also said that the Labor Department would “work with states to reinstate work search requirements for UI recipients, if health and safety conditions allow.” More than two dozen states have already reinstated such requirements, which were waived last year.
More than 16 million people filed for unemployment in the week ending April 17, according to the most recent available Department of Labor unemployment data. The week ending May 1 saw 498,000 new unemployment claims, the lowest number of new unemployment claims since the pandemic cratered the U.S. economy last March, according to the Labor Department.
While COVID-19 case numbers have fallen drastically, partly thanks to an aggressive vaccination campaign that’s resulted in more than half of American adults getting at least one shot so far, the pandemic is still raging. Nearly 38,000 people are hospitalized and 650 deaths were reported on May 10, according to the New York Times.
But some states have already begun acting as if things have totally returned to normal. Mississippi became the latest state to slash unemployment benefits Monday: Gov. Tate Reeves announced unemployed residents would no longer be eligible for the $300 supplement to their weekly unemployment checks, as they were “no longer necessary.”
“It has become clear to me that we cannot have a full economic recovery until we get the thousands of available jobs in our state filled,” Reeves said in a tweet.
The $300-a-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit was part of the American Rescue Plan, the relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March. A $600 per week version of that was passed in last year’s CARES Act; this iteration lasts into September.
But citing so-called worker and labor “shortages,” the Republican governors of Montana, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Alabama have killed the supplement within the past week, while other states such as Kentucky have begun requiring filers to prove they’re looking for a job.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also called on Congress to end the benefit early, blaming an underwhelming April jobs report on the unemployment benefit and claiming that a quarter of workers are making more on unemployment benefits than they were in their previous employment.
“The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market," Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s chief policy officer and executive vice president, said in a statement Friday.
But the shortage has also highlighted the longstanding issue of wage stagnation, which has disproportionately affected low-income workers. Chipotle, the national burrito chain, announced Monday that it would raise its starting pay to $15 per hour and offer $750 referral bonuses as part of an effort to hire 20,000 new employees.
And Biden attempted to push back on the UI narrative Monday. "The line has been that because of the generous unemployment benefits, that's a major factor in labor shortages. Americans want to work,” Biden said. "I think people who claim Americans won't work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people."
"So we'll insist that the law is followed with respect to benefits,” Biden added. “But we're not going to turn our backs on our fellow Americans.”