One of the tenets of the American unemployment system was that anyone with benefits in good times and bad should look for work.
That consideration changed at the beginning of the pandemic. The pervasive fear of contagion and the sudden need for millions of workers to become caregivers led states to lift the requirements for practical and compassionate reasons.
But as vaccinations increased and the economy revived, more than half of all states have revived their job search requirements. Arkansas and Louisiana did this months ago to push workers out of their swollen unemployment figures. Others, like Vermont and Kentucky, have followed suit in the past few weeks.
The rest can be on the way. President Biden on Monday ordered the Department of Labor “to work with the rest of the states, insofar as health and safety conditions permit,” to meet the requirements arising from the pandemic.
Employers can welcome the move as a potential addition to the pool of job seekers. For many workers, however, compulsory search is a premature declaration that the world has returned to normal, despite legitimate concerns about infection with the virus and childcare restrictions.
“The job search is just a mess,” said 34-year-old Tyler Evans, who lost his nearly four-year job at a downtown Nashville restaurant at the start of the pandemic. Mr. Evans’ doctor did not release him to work, warning him that he was at additional risk from the coronavirus due to his autoimmune disease.
However, according to Tennessee, Mr. Evans must complete three job search activities per week in order to continue to be eligible for unemployment benefits. When he explained his situation to the people at the State Labor Department, they suggested that he just say he was looking for a job because the state system had no way of considering health cases like his.
Instead, Mr. Evans diligently applied for jobs every week – even if he couldn’t take any of them.
“I would say one in four times someone would call me back,” he said. “And I have to say, ‘Oh, I can’t actually work for you for health reasons, but the Department of Labor asked me to do it anyway.'”
Research suggests that job search demands in normal economic times may force workers to find their next job and reduce their working hours. But the pandemic has added a new layer to a debate about how relief can be reconciled with the assumption that unemployment is temporary. Most states cut unemployment benefits after 26 weeks.
Business groups say bringing back job search requirements will help juicy the job market and dissuade workers from waiting to return to their old employers or advocating for more remote or better paying jobs.
Opponents claim the mandate discourages an inadequate number of Americans from continuing to receive the benefits they need as it can be difficult to meet the sometimes difficult requirements, including documenting the search efforts. And they say workers may be forced to apply for and accept poorly paid or less satisfactory jobs if the pandemic has caused some to rethink their attitudes about their work, family needs, and prospects.
“I think the job search requirements as an economist are necessary,” said Marta Lachowska, an economist at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who studied the impact of job search requirements on employment. But she added, “Perhaps, given the huge disruption we’ve seen in the labor market, people should ease up a little.”
In Washington, the problem has become part of a larger unemployment benefit conflict that worsened after April’s disappointing job report. Republicans claimed that Mr. Biden’s policies were preventing people from looking for work and holding back economic recovery.
A growing number of Republican governors have taken matters into their own hands, seeking to end a $ 300 weekly unemployment benefit and other federal-funded emergency aid that would otherwise not expire until September.
Mr Biden has rejected the criticism of his economic stimulus plan. But its acceptance of job search requirements – more than a year after the federal government ordered states to forego it – has made the practice a pillar in efforts to revitalize the economy.
Tim Goodrich, the executive director for state government relations at the National Federation of Independent Business, said its members have complained about problems filling vacancies – a challenge mitigated by restoring job search requirements could be.
“You see a shortage of applicants, so finding a job is certainly helpful,” Goodrich said.
Job vacancies rose to 8.1 million in March, the Labor Department reported Tuesday, but more than eight million fewer people are working than before the pandemic. Economists attribute some of the mismatch to a temporary discrepancy between the jobs offered and the skills or background of job seekers. They say that in a recovering labor market like this, there may not be enough suitable jobs for people seeking re-employment, which can frustrate workers and lead them to randomly apply for jobs.
Such was the case for 45-year-old Rie Wilson, who was selling venues for a nonprofit in New York City before she lost her job last summer.
To meet New York job hunting requirements, which typically require unemployment applicants to complete at least three job search activities per week, Ms. Wilson had to apply for jobs she would not normally consider, such as job vacancy. B. Jobs as administrative assistant.
She worries about the prospect of getting a job like this.
“I always think, ‘What if I’m pulled in this direction just because I’m forced to apply for these jobs? How does that look for my career? ‘”, She said.
The process was time consuming, she said, “and it’s also mental wear and tear because you literally get pulled from all angles in a very stressful situation.”
Alexa Tapia, the unemployment insurance campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, an employee advocacy group, said job search requirements “do more harm than help”, especially during the pandemic.
In particular, she said, such demands perpetuate systemic racism by including people of color, especially women, in underpaid work with fewer benefits. And she noted that people of color were more likely to be denied services because of such demands.
Since the state employment offices are already overwhelmed, the job search requirements are “just another obstacle for applicants, and it can be a very demoralizing obstacle”.
In states where job search requirements have been reintroduced, workers’ representatives say a particularly frustrating obstacle has been a lack of guidance.
Sue Berkowitz, the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which works with low-income South Carolinians, said unemployed workers in the state largely wanted to return to work. But the information on the state’s website about job search requirements is so confusing that it fears workers will not understand it.
Before the state reintroduced the requirements last month, Ms. Berkowitz sent a flagged copy of the proposed language to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Labor Chief of Staff for clarifications and changes. One of their greatest concerns was that the language in its current form was read in 12th grade, while the typical adult American reading level is much lower. She didn’t hear back. “It was crickets,” she said.
In general, employees in South Carolina, where the minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour, may be reluctant to take a job that pays less than what they had before the pandemic, Ms. Berkowitz said.
“It’s not that they are under a job that does a lot less, but their financial needs are high enough to continue to earn a certain salary,” she said.
Although job search requirements have become a political issue, their restoration does not fall solely by party-political standards. Florida, for example, where the Republican governor has repeatedly violated virus restrictions, had maintained the job search waiver before recently announcing that it would reintroduce the requirement later this month.
But many other states, especially the Republicans, are in a hurry to bring their job search requirements back.
Crista San Martin found out when she quit her job for health reasons at a kennel in Cypress, Texas, which reintroduced its job search requirements in November.
Mx. San Martin, 27, who uses the pronouns he and she use, said there were very few vacancies in the pet care industry near her, making it difficult to find a job.
“That made it really difficult for me to keep a log of job searches because there just weren’t enough jobs I wanted to take on for my career,” they said. The first job they applied for was with a Panera, “which is not at all in my area of interest”.
Above all, applying for arbitrary jobs is risky, as there is no way to evaluate the Covid-19 security protocols of potential employers. Mx. San Martin has since returned to her old job.
“It’s pretty unfair,” they said. “It’s not safe to go out there and just cast a wide net and see if some random deal gets you.”