Idaho to stop participating in pandemic unemployment programs

Posted at 2:18 PM, May 11, 2021

BOISE, Idaho — Gov. Brad Little announced Tuesday Idaho will stop participating in three federal pandemic unemployment compensation programs. A news release from Little says the decision is to help employers get people back on the job.

“Employers are telling me one of the big reasons they cannot recruit and retain some workers is because those employees are receiving more on unemployment than they would while working. We see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere. Idaho has the strongest economy in the nation, and we are a top 10 state for best employment, but there is more we can do. It’s time to get back to work,” said Little. “My decision is based on a fundamental conservative principle – we do not want people on unemployment. We want people working. A strong economy cannot exist without workers returning to a job.”

On June 19, the following federal programs will end in the state:

  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation – provides an additional $300 weekly payment
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – benefits those who would not usually qualify for unemployment, such as the self-employed and others
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – extends benefits once regular benefits have been exhausted

The release says Idaho was one of three states that chose to not participate in the Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, an additional federal program that provided a $100 benefit to certain people.

Idaho recently reinstated the pre-pandemic work search requirements for unemployment insurance claimants. The work search requirement means those who are out of work and getting benefits must look for full-time employment. The requirement was lifted during the COVID-19 pandemic but was reinstated in April, according to the release.

Last year, Idaho used Back to Work incentives, which counteracted the federal payouts and incentivized the workforce to get back to work safely. The governor's office says the federal government is now looking at the program as a way to help businesses now that jobs are coming back.

In a statement in response to the announcement, the Idaho Democrats said they are "deeply disappointed" in the decision:

“Unemployment benefits, by definition, are a fraction of what people earned before they lost their job. The enhanced benefit helps families keep up with rent, utilities, groceries, and other basic necessities,” Asst. House Democratic Leader Lauren Necochea said in a statement. “Gov. Little’s decision shows that he is out of touch with working Idahoans.”

A local restaurant believes the changes could help with hiring.

Food orders are coming through Enrique's Mexican Restaurant in Kuna and customers are filling the seats, but the owners say their open job positions are going unfilled. This is putting the restaurant in a tough spot.

“Due to the shortage of staff, we have to shut down two days a week. something we haven’t done. Before COVID, we stayed open Monday through Sunday 10 p.m. to 10 p.m. for the past (23) years and now we have to shut down on Sunday and Monday just to not burn out the staff that we do have," said Enrique Contreras one of the managers at the restaurant.

The Kuna family-owned restaurant believes Gov. Little's decision could help with hiring.

"We’ve been setting up interviews with a lot of people trying to get them in. People will schedule them but won’t show up, a lot of people passed the interview and never show up for orientation. We just feel like these benefits have been holding people back to get back into the workforce," Contreras said.

Contreras said they're also taking additional steps to lure workers, asking current employees for referrals and raising wages for their bartending position.

"We pay then $15 an hour plus tips. Just this past weekend I had bartenders make over $500 each just in tips and my servers do get paid a little less $3.25 an hour but they are making more than $300 to $400 every Friday and Saturday. My cooks are making about $15 to $18," Contreras said.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Janie Ward-Engelking said in a statement that people are struggling to get back to work unless they find affordable child care providers.

“Too many low-wage workers do not have access to affordable child care. We cannot forget that the pandemic caused the shutdown of approximately 220 child care centers in Idaho. Well-paid workers even struggle to afford child care, and the lower wage earners are in an even tougher predicament,” Ward-Engelking said.

Asst. Senate Democratic leader Grant Burgoyne said restaurant workers or in other industries that rely on tips may not be making the same amount before the pandemic hit.

“Gov. Little’s administration is supposed to be enforcing Idaho’s stringent laws requiring those receiving unemployment insurance to look for and accept suitable work, so that’s not the problem. The problem is too many service-sector jobs come with a $3.25 per hour minimum wage requiring people to rely on tips to pay for child care and still make a living. Yet restaurants and other establishments still aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels, meaning reduced tips. What’s wrong with this picture? Huge income tax cuts for the rich, no property tax cuts desperately needed by everyone else, and now, less unemployment insurance. The Republicans need to do better than take from those in need to give to those who do not,” Asst. Senate Democratic Leader Grant Burgoyne said.

Management at Enrique's is seeing an uptick in business and additional workers will help them stay open.

“To stay open. It’s 23 years of hard work feels like it can be thrown away just by not having enough employees,” Contreras said.