We’ve never seen an offer quite like the state’s $1,500 sweetener for unemployed workers who find a job this month, but we’re not surprised. There are a lot of things happening in the economy that we’ve never seen before.
We have never seen a growing economy suddenly shut down the way ours was in the early months of 2020 when the SARS-CoV-2 virus began spreading around the country.
And we have never seen the level of federal intervention to head off a second Great Depression, a mostly bipartisan effort that pumped $5.3 trillion into the economy in the form of direct payments to individuals; aid to state, local and tribal governments; support for large and small employers, and investment in health care systems.
Unemployment insurance also got a boost from the federal government. Congress created programs that, for the first time, expanded the list of jobs eligible for jobless benefits to include self-employed workers and contractors and added an additional weekly benefit, now $300, that is designed to bring everyone’s pay close to the median income.
As vaccinations prove themselves effective and the economy is reopening, it’s those unemployment benefits that are getting the most attention, largely from people who claim that they are too generous and discourage people from going back to the workforce.
That’s what is prompting Gov. Mills’ administration to make a limited-time offer: An unemployment benefits recipient who takes a full-time job in June and holds it for eight weeks will earn a $1,500 bonus. A new employee who starts in July can earn an extra $1,000.
It’s a first-come-first-serve program funded with $10 million of federal funds, and it could reach as many as 7,500 of the 38,000 Mainers who are collecting weekly benefits. It’s designed to get restaurants and hotels staffed up through what is expected to be a busy summer tourism season.
These bonuses may give a nudge to people who are on the fence about going back to work, especially those who have transportation or childcare issues keeping them at home. But no one should believe that the unemployment benefits are the only thing holding the economy back.
We need to remember that a worker shortage was Maine’s biggest economic problem even before COVID hit. Many seasonal businesses relied on foreign guest workers, who are not getting unemployment checks to stay home. Restrictions on international travel are keeping them away from Maine.
And even though some businesses are ready to rebound, others are not. More than 170 Maine day care centers have closed during the pandemic, and many report that they can’t meet demand because they can’t raise wages high enough to attract teachers without pricing out most of their customers. Helping families pay for quality child care is another intervention the state is undertaking to get parents back into the workforce.
These are unprecedented times, so it should come as no surprise to see the state taking unprecedented steps to get the economy moving again. The bonus program is a small but promising step toward a economic recovery. We’ll be surprised if it’s the last.