Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu joined the growing pro-business chorus complaining that firms can’t find enough willing workers, ostensibly because those would-be workers are content to remain unemployed while raking in lavish jobless benefits courtesy of the pandemic stimulus packages.
This week Sununu, who has more power than many in that chorus, announced he’ll cut off the $300-per-week added benefit New Hampshire’s jobless workers have been receiving as of next month. To cushion the blow, he’s offering up to a $1,000 one-time “return to work” incentive for some. At least, until the money set aside for it runs out.
The idea that shiftless layabouts are eager to sit back and collect wages far above what they’d normally expect while jobless, rather than actually go out and work for their money, is red meat for the Fox News crowd, and has been repeated ad nauseam by pundits and politicians alike in recent weeks. It fits the conservative narrative to a T: the less-than-exceptional among us looking for a handout on the public’s dime.
A couple of things we wonder about, though.
One is the actual unemployment numbers. In New Hampshire, April’s jobless report showed an unemployment rate of only 2.7 percent. That’s pretty historically low, and doesn’t seem to indicate a lot of potential workers are sitting about, enjoying all the waning pandemic has to offer. In raw numbers, in fact, April saw 21,410 unemployed Granite Staters, a decrease from March of 1,460.
Then there’s the narrative itself, which assumes the worst of people. Much like the work requirements GOP lawmakers push on Medicaid programs, SNAP payments and other aid, it treats those in need of assistance as simply being too lazy to get a job — or a better job — and pay their own way. There are a multitude of reasons why someone might be in need of help through such aid programs. Among them are childcare and home-schooling needs that forced some parents, particularly women, to leave their jobs during the pandemic.
And that brings us to our last point about the $300 extra in stimulus money unemployed workers are receiving, but which the governor feels they no longer deserve.
That $300 works out to $7.50 per hour for a 40-hour workweek. That’s a pretty good bump for many hourly workers, and we couldn’t blame some for rethinking whether to return to low-paying jobs. It is, in fact, 25 cents more than the state’s minimum wage, which mirrors the federal rate.
If employers are finding it hard to fill positions — especially those that pay little enough that the $300 would make a difference — they might want to consider this: It’s been more than a decade since the minimum wage in the Granite State has risen, and then, in 2010, only because the federal minimum rose slightly. Meanwhile, the rates in nearby states have risen quite dramatically. In Massachusetts, the rate has been raised from $8 an hour in 2010 to $12.75.
If you were a New Hampshire worker looking for a job coming out of the pandemic, and lived within a reasonable commute of the Bay State, as more than half of Granite Staters do, you might be less inclined to take a job here, where wages are suppressed by the low floor.
We believe most people want to work, but want to know that for their work, they’ll be able to pay the rent and child care, have health care, eat regularly and enjoy the time when they’re not working.
If you see people getting by only because they got a $7.50/hour raise and think to yourself: “Hmm, we’ve gotta get rid of that income” so they’ll be forced to go to work, you’re missing the big picture. Add to the mix the push for “right to work” legislation that would gut unions and thereby leave workers unprotected from being taken advantage of and the refusal to raise the minimum wage.
For a state desperate for qualified workers, New Hampshire’s current leaders seem hell-bent on doing everything they can to tell prospective employees: We don’t want you.