Gov. Brian Kemp said the state will end the extra $300 in weekly jobless payments that thousands of Georgians receive on top of their unemployment checks during the pandemic, part of what he described as an effort to push more residents into the workforce.
The Republican announced the decision on Thursday in a Fox News interview, saying the incentives are “hurting our productivity not only in Georgia, but around the country.”
The subsidies are set to end in mid-to-late June.
“This is an issue I’m getting pounded on every day by our small business owners and many Georgians,” Kemp said. “They need some help.”
While small businesses called for the move, many of the people receiving benefits say the money has been essential to paying for housing and food. While many low-wage jobs are open, many of the jobless were better paid before the pandemic and are searching for something that matches their experience and abilities.
“Not everybody was a McDonalds worker before this,” said Erin Miller of Atlanta. “I have been looking for marketing jobs. I’d like to use this degree that I just paid all this money for.”
Republican governors in about a dozen states previously announced plans to cancel the extra benefits to push more people to return to work. Federal law allows states to opt out of receiving increased benefits as early as June 12.
The supporters of the extra benefits say they help blunt the impact of an economy still recovering from the pandemic, and the fallout has disproportionately affected women as many children still learn remotely. The U.S. economy in March had 7.6 million fewer people employed than before the pandemic, including a sharp drop-off among working mothers.
State law gives Butler the authority to nix the benefits, though the labor commissioner said he’s working in tandem with Kemp on a “plan to put Georgians back to work.”
Many Georgia Republicans were skeptical of the $300 weekly boosts even after the incentives were adopted amid the pandemic. But the criticism ramped up dramatically after a disappointing federal jobs report last week and growing complaints from industry groups that workers — especially those at the low end of the wage scale — were hard to find.
Studies have shown that the reasons are a mix. Some people are staying home with children, some are afraid of front-line jobs that may expose them to COVID-19. And some who had low-income work have a financial incentive to delay their return to the labor force.
In recent weeks, Kemp has repeatedly invoked conversations he’s had with business owners struggling to hire workers, particularly in logistics and lower-wage industries like retail and food service. And he’s suggested the benefits hamper hiring by discouraging Georgians from returning to the workforce.
Kemp’s decision puts Georgia in line with senior GOP officials, such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who accused Democrats of putting “handcuffs” on the recovery with extended jobless aid.
The move is sure to satisfy many grassroots Georgia Republicans who have echoed those demands. State Sen. Steve Gooch, one of the GOP leaders in the state Senate, recently pressed Kemp in a letter to roll back the incentives, and other Republican officials raised the issue on social media.
Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, a car dealer, applauded Kemp’s decision.
“As our federal government approaches $29 trillion in debt, President Biden and the federal government have turned their back on our local business owners desperately facing labor shortages by continuing to hand out taxpayers dollars in the form of needless unemployment benefits,” he said in a statement.
And Kemp’s move drew immediate praise from business groups.
“Our hope is that by ending the additional payments, more people will return to work,” said Nathan Humphrey, Georgia director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
But Kemp’s move could also alienate some rank-and-file conservatives who depended on the enhanced jobless benefits to make ends meet.
“I am a staunch Republican, but I am so frustrated that I can’t stand it,” said Pamela Tolliver of Cumming, who was laid off from an engineering firm in July. She’s been sending out resumes, but hearing nothing from potential employers. “I think Gov. Kemp has been hearing the business side and not hearing my side.”
Tolliver, 51, had also worked part-time at a pharmacy, but lost that job, too.
Many of the jobs that are open are too far away, she said. Others are in warehouses and trucking and require heavy lifting that she cannot do. And some jobs just don’t pay enough.
“I am not a lazy person,” Tolliver said. “I need health insurance. My daughter needs health insurance. I think Gov. Kemp needs to get the whole picture.”
In all, the state jobless benefits top out at $365 a week while the federal incentive adds $300 — equivalent to $16.63 an hour for a 40-hour week.
For many low-wage workers, those benefits are enough to replace or surpass their pre-pandemic pay. According to a 2019 Brookings Institution study, about one-fifth of metro Atlanta workers were making less than $10.09 an hour.
But the median household income in Georgia is $58,700, according to the Census Bureau. The pandemic meant job loss for tens of thousands of Georgians with better-paying jobs, as well as rent, mortgages and other bills that matched.
Marquis Davis of Duluth was a marketing manager making more than $90,000 a year for an auto sales company that laid off most employees during the pandemic. He received his final paycheck in August, not long after the engine in his own car died.
He has been looking for work, getting interviews but not yet getting an offer.
“The unemployment is enough to pay rent and food an utilities, but you can’t live much of a life off that,” he said “I’m not turning down any job.”
Democrats have strongly criticized claims that the weekly bonus undermines the economic recovery. President Joe Biden said the lingering aftershocks of the pandemic, including child care issues and school closures, have blunted economic expansion far more than the weekly supplements.
Overall, Georgia’s economy is faring better than in many other states. The jobless rate was 4.5% in March after the economy added 21,800 jobs last month, which is below the 6% national average. And the state’s labor force neared 5.2 million in March 2021, close to an all-time high set last year.
Still, the state processed about 140,000 new jobless claims in March, far above pre-pandemic levels. And Georgia’s labor department listed about current 260,000 openings, more than double the number of vacancies posted last summer.