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Millions of Americans on unemployment are staring down the edge of a cliff, with the $600 a week federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance set to wind down at the end of the month in the absence of congressional action. On top of that, some states are now making it harder to qualify for unemployment benefits by reinstituting a requirement that applicants prove they’re looking for other jobs in order to collect.
Garrett Honey was furloughed from his job as a test engineer for a casino software company in Denver when lockdowns started in March. He’d been collecting unemployment and waiting on his company to call him back, when a week ago he got a letter from the Colorado unemployment agency.
“And all it says is, hey, you have to find a new job. You have to start looking for one, otherwise you won’t get unemployment,” he said.
To continue to receive benefits, he’d have to complete five work-search activities each week: applying for jobs, going to interviews and accepting a job if it were offered.
That put him in a tough spot. Job openings in his field are really hard to come by with the pandemic keeping most casinos closed or at low capacity, and he’d hoped to keep his old job.
“That caused a lot of panic last week,” he said.
Work search requirements were suspended by most states during the initial weeks of the crisis, but Colorado, along with Nebraska, Arkansas and Missouri, have reinstated them in recent weeks.
“You don’t want to discourage people from working if jobs are available,” said Angela Rachidi, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In normal times, she said, work search requirements are intended to motivate unemployed people to rejoin the labor market rather than remain on government assistance.
In the early days of the pandemic, people were supposed to stay home, not be out looking for jobs, so it made sense to do away with the requirement.
“But now we’re in this kind of gray area of recovery,” said Chris O’Leary, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. While the most stringent lockdowns have eased and some sectors of the economy have reopened, we’re not back to normal, he said.
“It’s kind of on again, off again — yeah, we’re going to have to return to work. Oh, wait a minute — the virus is spreading. Maybe we can’t,” he said.
There’s still enormous uncertainty in many industries, like Garrett Honey’s. And while the states that have reimposed job search requirements are not hot spots right now, the last months have taught us how quickly things can go bad with a virus that is spreading out of control.
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