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Weekly Column: Following Idaho's Lead On Getting Employees Safely Back To Work

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Alex Adams, Administrator of the Idaho Division of Financial Management, shared remarkable results of Idaho’s Return to Work bonuses at a House Ways and Means Committee panel discussion in March.  He cited Idaho’s unemployment rate as among the lowest in the country [at 3.2 percent in March], due in part to Idaho’s Return to Work bonuses and other actions Idaho Governor Brad Little took last year.  He reported Idaho not only averted an unemployment insurance trust fund crisis, but also grew the trust fund during the pandemic.  Idaho also led the nation in year-over-year revenue growth, and was noted as the only state that grew jobs, with net gains from January of 2020 to January of 2021.  Governor Little said, “The Return to Work bonuses are based on a fundamental conservative principle – we do not want people on unemployment. We want people working.”  I do too.

Last summer, Idaho’s Return to Work bonus program safely and successfully reduced Idaho’s unemployment, strengthening the state’s workforce and economic rebound.  To leverage Idaho’s experience in getting employees safely back to work, fellow Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and I introduced S. 1389, the “Back to Work Bonus Act.”  The bill would counteract enhanced federal unemployment benefits that discourage workers from returning to jobs by providing a back-to-work bonus for those able to return safely to work, through the following provisions: 

  • Time limited back-to-work bonuses: Makes work pay by providing a one-time payment of either $1,200 (full-time) or $600 (part-time) to unemployed workers who obtain employment, comparable to a hiring bonus.  The bonus would require verification from an individual’s employer of their hours and earnings and would be available through July 1, 2021. 
  • Reemployment services: In recognition of the increased need for support to laid off workers, the bill accelerates a scheduled increase in funding for Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessments and expands the pool of eligible workers to include those receiving benefits through CARES Act unemployment programs, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. 
  • Reinstate job search requirement: The bill reinstates the federal work search requirement for individuals receiving unemployment.  Last March, when businesses were closed, Congress provided flexibility for states to waive this requirement.  Thirty-two states continue to have a waiver in place.  Reopening the economy will require connecting all available workers to job openings.

A bill summary is available here.  Bill text is available here.  House Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady introduced identical legislation in the House.

As Alex Adams described the problem leading to Idaho’s program, employers expressed difficulty getting workers back to the workplace—driven, to a large extent, by disincentives created by the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits.  He explained, “To put that in context for Idaho, based on our standard base unemployment rate and the extra $600, it led to individuals making upwards of $54,000 a year, making more on unemployment than they would if they returned to the workforce in the state of Idaho.”  The American Rescue Plan Act provided an extension of $300/week in supplemental unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021.  As states reopen, the expansion of benefits has presented serious challenges for businesses trying to hire or recall workers, especially employers in the Paycheck Protection Program. 

Last month, the United States added only 266,000 jobs—far fewer than the one million most economists expected.  A back-to-work bonus will help accelerate our economic recovery.  As Governor Little stated, “Idaho responded to the needs of businesses, strengthened our workforce and economic rebound, and saved taxpayer dollars in the long run.”  The federal government should build on Idaho’s experience in getting employees safely back to work. 

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