The articles trod the same well-worn path: The Usual Suspects in the business community are raising fears that proposed state unemployment benefits will hurt their efforts to attract workers. Both stories are replete with quotes from worried business owners and their paid lobbyists.
Because, as we all know, workers are inherently lazy. And the lower they are on the totem pole, the lazier they become — all the way down to the mythical creature known as the Welfare Queen.
In these stories, you won’t read any quotes from actual workers. Nor will you see anything from business groups that aren’t cut from the Chamber cloth. It’d be nice to know how Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Main Street Alliance see things before deciding whether we should consider “business leaders” as united on the moral hazard of unemployment insurance.
It’s true that many unemployed people have gotten more in Covid-enhanced UI than they could expect to earn in their line of work, and that would again be the case under S.10. I’d argue this says more about the overabundance of low-paying jobs than about the excessive generosity of pandemic benefits. And there’s plenty of research that shows that the “business leaders'” fears are unfounded; that the effect of temporarily sweetened UI on the supply of available workers is negligible at most.
While some workers could earn more on UI than from a paycheck, that’s far from the only factor in their decision-making.
Sooner or later, the extra benefits will expire. Anyone who’s been out of work from March 2020 through whenever we get back to “normal” will have a big fat hole in their work history. That will make it harder for them to get a job. It’s a big risk for a small short-term gain.
Why else might people be reluctant to accept employment during a pandemic? Well, health concerns. All those jobs in retail and hospitality involve constant contact with other people, sometimes in situations you can’t control.
As long as schools and child care facilities aren’t operating as usual, many people have child-care responsibilities that keep them at home. If the worker is at high risk for Covid because of other medical conditions, staying home might be the better part of wisdom. If a member of the household is at high risk, there’s the chance of bringing coronavirus home from a workplace.
Expanded UI is meant to give people the means to make those choices, even if it keeps them from returning to the workforce as quickly as a business owner might like.
It’s also meant to keep the economy strong by giving people the resources to buy stuff like food and clothing and paying the light bill, and to get them over the hump of accrued debt. A little extra income isn’t going to go to waste, Welfare Queen stereotypes notwithstanding.
I also question the lazy-worker narrative itself. In my experience, most people draw a sense of self-worth from their employment in addition to the paychecks. While the prospect of sitting on the couch eating donuts might have hypothetical appeal, the reality would drive most people nuts. I think most would prefer earning a paycheck to drawing benefits, if they could get a fair deal and a place for their kids to go and a Covid-free workplace.
I hope our lawmakers can see beyond the fears of “business leaders” and do the right thing by Vermont workers. The pandemic is still on, and people are still hurting.