“The law is clear, if you are receiving unemployment benefits and you are offered a suitable job, you can’t refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits,” Biden said, in a brief address on the nation’s economy Monday.
Biden’s statement Monday amounts to less of a policy change than a rhetorical shift amid increasingly shrill Republican criticism of federal unemployment benefits.
Republicans have targeted the American Rescue Plan’s unemployment benefits, which affords the jobless an additional $300 a week on top of state benefits through September, as the main driver behind continued high unemployment levels. Several Republican-run states have already said they’ll cancel federal benefits, and criticism intensified on Friday after the Labor Department announced disappointing job growth in April.
On Monday, Biden reiterated that his administration doesn’t see “much evidence” of unemployment benefits keeping Americans home.
“I think the people who claim Americans won’t work even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people,” Biden said. “We still have 8 million fewer jobs than we did when the pandemic started, and for many of those folks, unemployment benefits are a lifeline. No one should be allowed to game the system and we will insist the law is followed, but let’s not take our eye off the ball.”
The White House house announced Monday that the Labor Department would “clarify” current law for unemployment eligibility, which says that “workers may not turn down a job due to a general, non-specific concern about COVID-19 and continue to receive benefits.” That’s pretty much what it already says on the Labor Department’s website.
Last year as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress added extra money to weekly state benefits and also greatly expanded eligibility, allowing employees to claim benefits if they were diagnosed with COVID-19 or if a health care provider told them to quarantine due to conditions making them more susceptible to severe illness.
The Donald Trump administration opted for a somewhat strict interpretation of the eligibility rules, urging states to yank benefits from workers who refused jobs. In January, the Biden administration touted new Labor Department guidance outlining certain circumstances when workers could refuse unsafe jobs and keep their benefits.
Biden on Monday also told the Labor Department to help states reimpose work search requirements that Congress lifted at the outset of the pandemic. Most states have already done so, requiring claimants to certify to the government that they’re available for work and applying for jobs every week.
The Labor Department will work with states “to put in place appropriate work search requirements as the economy continues to rebound, vaccinations increase, and the pandemic is brought under control,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Stricter work search requirements are a reasonable interim step as the economy recovers, said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment policy expert with The Century Foundation.
“I would prefer states to tighten up work search requirements, but leave the pandemic benefits in place until September, than just cut people off altogether,” Stettner said.
The extra federal benefits will expire in September unless Congress extends them. Republicans said last year the supplemental aid would kill hiring, but millions returned to work and the unemployment rate plunged from its high of 14.8%. But now, with people vaccinated and local governments relaxing social distancing rules, Republicans and employers have renewed their criticism.
Business owners are quick to cite a labor shortage when struggling to hire, with some blaming unemployment benefits, but others pointing to factors like a lack of access to child care preventing former workers from coming back.
The child care industry received $40 billion in direct funding through the American Rescue Plan — a major chunk of that in grants for providers to cover payroll costs, rent and protective gear. The Biden administration said new Department of Health and Human Services guidance to states would help get the money out the door so more parents can return to work.
Come July, American families will also be able to benefit from a child allowance-like program through the American Rescue Plan, in the form of an expanded child tax credit, when the IRS will start sending out up to $300 a month per child.