White House to work with states on reimposing work-search requirements

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President Joe Biden appeared to bend in part to GOP criticisms of unemployment benefits on Monday while continuing to respond to assertions that jobless payments are slowing the U.S. economy.

In remarks in the East Room, Biden said on Monday that the White House will “make it clear” that Americans on unemployment must take a job if offered a “suitable” one or lose their benefits. Republicans and business interests have said in recent days that the benefits are discouraging workers from returning to the labor market.

In an apparent nod to those attacks, the White House said it is directing the Labor Department to work with states on reimposing work-search requirements for Americans collecting unemployment benefits. The Labor Department will soon issue a letter to “reaffirm” the rules of unemployment to ensure that workers, employers and states understand the rules of the program, the White House said.

Biden reiterated that the administration disputes GOP assertions that April’s jobs data, released Friday, shows that unemployment benefits are too generous and causing workers to stay home rather than rejoin the workforce. And the White House did not announce a departure from prior policy on unemployment benefits. Still, the president’s remarks suggest that the White House is sensitive to the growing political criticisms over its handling of the issue and will seek to amplify pressure on workers to return to work.

“We’re going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment,” Biden said in remarks in the East Room. “There are a few COVID-19-related exceptions. … But otherwise, that’s the law.”

The White House has been forced onto the defensive over some worrisome economic news, with the April jobs report showing a slowdown in the pace of job gains. Democrats and the president have advised patience and pointed to other factors, such as ongoing concerns about the coronavirus and the lack of available child care for working parents.

Biden’s new message on Monday was aimed primarily at demonstrating how the unemployment system works and underscoring why the White House does not think the benefits are to blame for the labor shortage, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly.

States waived their work requirements for unemployment benefits at the start of the pandemic, but about 30 of them have reimposed or are planning to reimpose them. Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Friday that Indiana would do the same.

The president conceded that the issue had become an easy political attack for Republicans—that unemployment benefits were causing people to not look for work—but he insisted that there was little evidence of it.

“People who claim Americans won’t work, even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people,” he said. “So we’ll insist that the law is followed with respect to benefits. But we’re not going to turn our backs on our fellow Americans.”

He also more explicitly blamed the Trump administration’s pace in addressing the coronavirus, which Biden said led to more jobs lost than would have occurred if the government had had a more adequate response.

“Twenty-two million people lost their jobs in this pandemic through no fault of their own,” he said. “They lost their jobs to a virus, and to a government that bungled its response to the crisis and failed to protect them.”

Under current law, workers are not allowed to turn down a job and continue receiving benefits because of a “non-specific concern” about the virus. Workers can do so if they meet certain criteria outlined in a law passed last year by Congress, such as having a child who cannot go to school because of the pandemic, or because the job being offered does not adhere to health requirements. The White House says it will work with the Labor Department to “take concrete steps to raise awareness” about these rules. Jobless Americans can refuse unsafe work but must document the safety violation and communicate concerns with their employers first.

The Labor Department says there were more than 16 million claims for unemployment insurance filed for the last week of April. Several GOP-run states, such as Montana and South Carolina, are moving to cut the expanded unemployment benefits on their own. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has introduced legislation aimed at converting the enhanced unemployment benefit to a two-month signing bonus for new hires that would be worth more than their current unemployment benefit.

“It’s good to see some recognition from the administration that expanded UI may be reducing people’s willingness to work,” said Adam Ozimek, an economist at Upwork, who has criticized the expanded benefits. “But if half of the states have already reinstated their work-search requirement, I’m not sure the remaining states doing so is enough to solve the problem.”

The White House also announced that it will accelerate several economic measures beyond the work-search requirements. It said it will soon disburse funding aimed at the restaurant industry, struggling renters and distressed municipalities still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan included about $39 billion for child care. Biden said that funding would soon be released to the states to allow for the “dramatic expansion” of child-care eligibility.

Biden also highlighted the amount of aid that was given to businesses and said they have an obligation to create a safe working environment for their employees.

“We need to stay focused on the real problems ahead of us: beating the pandemic and creating jobs,” the president said, adding: “People will come back to work if they are paid a decent wage.”

Sasse said in a statement that the president is “all over the place” on unemployment insurance. “Cut the spin, convert unemployment into a signing bonus, and get America and Americans up and running,” Sasse said.

The partisan feud over unemployment benefits comes as the administration faces a crucial test of its ability to work across the aisle on strengthening the economy.

The White House sees this week as an important gauge for whether Biden can gain bipartisan support for his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan—which comes in addition to a $1.8 trillion proposal for expanding services such as child care, education and paid leave. Biden is hosting the four top congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday, and he’s holding a meeting with six Senate Republicans on Thursday as he makes one of his most concerted efforts at winning GOP votes since he took office.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week that he was focused “on stopping this new administration,” but on Sunday he told a PBS station in Kentucky that he could support up to $800 billion in infrastructure spending. Biden was also to meet privately on Monday with two more moderate Democrats who are vital to his efforts, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Thomas Carper of Delaware. Manchin has expressed concern over Biden’s proposed spending as well as the White House’s push to raise corporate tax rates.

With the fate of the new jobs and spending proposal unclear, the Biden administration has taken several steps in recent days to accelerate the disbursal of aid. Last week, the Treasury Department announced significant changes to emergency rental aid amid a looming eviction crisis, revising agency rules to allow tenants to more directly claim the assistance. On Monday, the Treasury announced details of its $350 billion state and local relief fund, money aimed at reversing the layoffs in local governments slowing down the economic recovery.

The state and local aid can be used for funding health-care efforts related to the virus, a lack of housing or food, providing “premium pay for essential workers,” and infrastructure efforts related to drinking water, storm water and broadband Internet access, among other uses. Gene Sperling, tapped by the White House to lead implementation of the stimulus plan, emphasized on a call with reporters that growth slowed substantially during the recovery after the Great Recession under President Barack Obama because of cuts at state and local levels.

State, city, tribal and territorial governments can begin filling out information on a portal with their funding requests. Administration officials said on a call with reporters that the funding could begin arriving within days.

“This is responding to the lessons of the past in a powerful way,” Sperling said. “There is still today 1.3 million state and local jobs lost since the onset of covid. … This is part of a strategy to get Americans back to work.”

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