New unemployment claims dropped to a pandemic low of 473,000 this week, while the experience of being unemployed in the United States is quickly diverging for people in states with Republican governors and states with Democratic governors. One after another, Republican governors are opting their states out of the increased federal unemployment benefits, announcing plans to take $300 a week from jobless people at a time when there are still 8.2 million fewer jobs than there were in February 2020, to say nothing of the jobs the economy would have been expected to create over the past 15 months if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus pandemic.
The Republican governors of Ohio, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Arizona have followed states including Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas in announcing a premature cutoff to the unemployment aid supplement. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey announced that his state will stop paying the $300 weekly federal supplement on July 10, and will start paying return-to-work bonuses, along with some community college and GED test prep scholarships and child care assistance for people returning to work. Which is all lovely if the jobs are there, but again, there’s still that 8.2 million job gap in the country as a whole.
Much has been made of complaints by restaurants that they’re having trouble finding the workers they need (at the wages they are offering, under the conditions workers are experiencing now), but the Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz show that while there are signs of a labor shortage brewing in leisure and hospitality, there isn’t a more widespread labor shortage—and despite the complaints about a labor shortage in restaurants, leisure and hospitality saw the fastest job growth of any industry in April.
Bivens and Shierholz also point out that, once again, April’s jobs numbers showed women leaving the labor market—and that trend throughout the pandemic has been about women’s caregiving responsibilities forcing them away from paid work rather than about the “they just want to stay home and collect unemployment” message coming from the nation’s Republican governors.
The Washington Post’s Heather Long recently took a look at the jobs data and pointed to some other factors: warehouses, which often pay more than restaurant or retail jobs, may be providing those industries with competition for workers. And in light of 49,000 grocery jobs lost in April, consider what one retail worker told Long: “The problem is we are not making enough money to make it worth it to go back to these jobs that are difficult and dirty and usually thankless. You’re getting yelled at and disrespected all day. It’s hell.”
Many restaurant workers echo that sentiment—it’s not just about the pay, it’s also about the interactions with customers, especially with pandemic frictions. One Ohio restaurant worker told radio show The Sound of Ideas that a customer who she’d asked to wear a mask had later berated her at length for daring to do so. She was lucky, she said, that her employers were following public health guidelines, but not everyone in the service industry is so lucky. On the same show, more than one former longtime worker described leaving the industry for other industries, not for their couches and unemployment benefits.
The unemployment picture right now is just complicated, and—it should go without saying—unprecedented. Between the fact that the economic recovery is uneven and unpredictable, lack of child care affecting many women’s ability to do paid work, and the safety concerns of workers in the pandemic, it’s really difficult to compare the present moment to recoveries from past recessions. The pandemic hit unequally, with Black and Latino and low-income people facing greater danger from COVID-19, and the economic recovery has been similarly unequal, with white people and white-collar workers getting their jobs back much faster than Black people, Latino people, people without college degrees, and younger workers.
All this means that the governors who are moving to end supplemented unemployment benefits before the economy recovers are once again hitting groups that have been battered by COVID-19 and by the resulting economic crisis. And, unfortunately but all too predictably, those are the people Republicans always want to scapegoat and squeeze. In this as in so many other things, the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the problems that already existed.