Michael Hiltzik: Employers say lavish unemployment checks make it hard to hire workers. Don't buy it

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Nothing is more satisfying than finding evidence that confirms one's own expectations. So it can't be surprising that the news landscape is getting filled with stories about businesses that can't find workers because everyone's staying at home collecting big unemployment checks from the government.

Earlier this month the Dispatch, a conservative website, compiled a sheaf of such yarns from a dozen restaurant and bar owners in Ohio and Florida and delivered their assessment that "the generous government benefits are the primary impediments to hiring."

Lamentations by employers are everywhere. "We are short-staffed," says a notice at a Sonic fast-food restaurant in Albuquerque, posted online by local TV reporter Patrick Hayes. "No one wants to work anymore."

Conservative lawmakers have forecast just this predicament during congressional debates over enhancing unemployment benefits to help workers survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here's then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, in July, kicking at a proposal to extend the government's $600 weekly unemployment enhancement:

"It is just making it practically impossible for businesses to get people back to work," he said. "Common sense tells you that if you want people to go back to work then government can't be an unfair competitor by paying people not to work."


This argument does carry a certain amount of intuitive logic. Given the choice between working a restaurant job or lazing about and collecting $1,000 a week or more ($600 from the federal government plus state benefits of at least $235, the floor set by the stingiest state, Mississippi), who would opt for the former?

Followers of labor-management debates will recognize this notion as a cousin of the "undeserving poor" trope so often wielded by conservatives to rationalize cutbacks in government anti-poverty programs.

The underlying idea is that what keeps individuals mired at the low-income rung of the economic ladder are their own moral failings. Offering them a hand up — or a handout, as it's often described — just encourages them in their bad habits.

Never mind that the purveyors of this trope are often feeders from the government trough themselves — Grassley, for example, collected $1.6 million for his family farm from 1995-2017.


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