HELENA — As unemployment falls, Montana businesses continue to struggle to find workers.
Earlier this May, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced plans to opt out of pandemic unemployment assistance and give workers receiving unemployment a one-time bonus for securing employment.
As more people are vaccinated and restrictions ease, business is returning to normal.
“Business has been coming back rapidly. It’s going to get much more intense,” says Toby DeWolf, owner of Bert & Ernie’s in Helena.
The return to normal could be challenging for businesses as they compete for workers in a tight labor market.
Signs like these below have become a common sight in the community.
“I feel like there will not be a point in time where we won’t be hiring for a long time,” says DeWolf.
The owner of Bert and Ernie's in Helena says hiring has been a challenge all year.
“I think it's going to be a challenge to get people to think about coming back to work after being on unemployment for so long,” says DeWolf.
It's a problem a new program by the Gianforte Administration hopes to ease with a program to incentivize workers on unemployment to return to work.
Under the plan, the state will opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefits on June 27, 2021. People who are receiving pandemic-related unemployment, including people who exhausted traditional unemployment, the self-employed, independent contractors, and people unable to work due to health or COVID-19 affected reasons, will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.
To further incentivize people to find work, anyone receiving unemployment as of May 4, 2021 is eligible for $1,200, if they find a job and complete four paid weeks of work.
“Generally, our biggest concern is just the overall number of jobs that we have and the overall number of what we know to be the available labor force,” says Scott Eychner. He is the Workforce Services Administrator for the Dept. of Labor and Industry. “The number of jobs continues to grow and we just have enough people to fill them. So this program, other things that will come through the ARPA funds, all those are intended to try and address all of that situation, just a general workforce shortage."
The state will reach out to the estimated 22,000 people eligible and guide them through the process of applying for and verifying employment.
“The employer community is the one that's been screaming about 'hey we need people, we need people.' Whether or not this is the golden ticket, I don't know, but it's another option that we have,” says Eychner. “We've never done this in the state before, never run a program like this. So, to have it as an alternative solution to what we generally use is a great opportunity for us to understand if this is something that will ultimately benefit the state long term. It will be interesting to see. We just don't know but we are excited to get to try something that we haven't done before."
As of May 21, 2021, this program is only for people who were receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4, 2021. It doesn't pay people who may have left the workforce, but are not receiving unemployment.
For employers like DeWolf who are looking for workers:
“If that's what it's gonna take, then I'm hoping that will be one of the attractions to get people to come back to work," says DeWolf.
The Department of Labor and Industry says depending on when one started the new job, one can receive the $1,200 bonus as early as June 2021.
Montana was the first state to fully opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The decision has drawn mixed reactions. The move was supported by the Montana Contractors Association. They said workers are needed to meet the demand for construction jobs.
However, the Montana AFL-CIO, which covers 38 unions and 50,000 workers, said ending the program will do significant harm to working families who face a shortage of childcare or workers who have pre-existing conditions that put them at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19.