LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Even in normal times, Nebraska has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, with less than two million people and plenty of jobs. But with some workers delaying returning to work after COVID-19 shutdowns, the state has reached new highs, recording the nation’s lowest state unemployment rate of 1.8% in November.
Now Governor Pete Ricketts, who frequently exposes the value of work, faces an intriguing question: Can a governor force citizens to work, even if they are apparently not willing or able to do so?
Ricketts is certainly trying every option imaginable to get Nebraskans to find jobs, including requiring people to talk to professional coaches before claiming unemployment benefits.
âThere are going to be a lot of different things that we need to do to reach out to each individual and, if they don’t work for some reason, get them back into the workforce,â Ricketts said recently.
Unemployment rates are low in many places, and while the national rate has fallen to 4.2%, officials across the country are struggling to convince people who have stopped looking for work to look for work.
A full workforce is needed to keep businesses running and supporting local economies, but it’s hard to overstate the difficulty of uprooting people who care for family members, explore other life options or just want to take a break.
Ricketts is determined to try with policies that make it harder to stay home.
“The jobs help create great financial independence for Nebraskans and their families, giving them the dignity of making their dreams come true,” said the two-term Republican governor, who is part of the Ricketts family, whose estimated wealth is $ 4.5 billion comes from the creation of the Ameritrade online brokerage.
Ricketts’ first move was to require people seeking unemployment benefits to meet with a professional coach, discuss specific employment goals and sign up for a âpersonalized re-employment planâ. The state has added more stringent requirements for maintaining benefits and for contacting employers to apply for openings.
Nebraska was also one of the first to end additional federal assistance for workers affected by the pandemic.
Nebraska has about 49,000 job postings listed on a state website and 19,000 non-working working-age residents. About 4,300 people receive unemployment benefits.
Among the unemployed is Sonja Redding, an Omaha mother whose daughter and son have autism and methylmalonic acidemia, a rare autoimmune disease that makes them exceptionally vulnerable to viruses.
Redding previously worked as a dealer and ran her own stall at a flea market, but shut down after the pandemic. She survived on federal stimulus money, unemployment, Social Security income, and her own savings, but recently cut spending “to the bare minimum” so she can stay home with her children. children.
âI would love to go back to work,â she says. âI’m a normal parent and sometimes I would like to get away from my kids, but that’s what we need to do now. It is really exhausting.
Redding said the employers she spoke to wanted her to come to the office.
Other reasons some people don’t work include concerns about coronavirus infection, said Dave Swenson, professor of economics at Iowa State University. Burnout is another factor, especially among healthcare workers and teachers.
Swenson questions the effectiveness of Ricketts’ efforts because most unemployed people don’t get unemployment assistance, he said.
Yet there is no doubt that Nebraska companies are hurting workers.
âThis is their # 1 challenge, # 2 challenge, and # 3 challenge,â said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In a chamber survey, more than 90% of chamber members identified labor shortages as their biggest concern.
In Lincoln, Nebraska’s second largest city, Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing has been unable to meet customer demand for its jet skis, ATVs, subway cars, and aircraft parts.
âIf I could, I would hire 150 people right now,â said Bryan Seck, the company’s chief talent management strategist.
Lincoln’s unemployment rate before the pandemic was 3.8%, but is now closer to 1.3%. Kawasaki began offering more consistent hours, a starting hourly wage of $ 18.10, and a tuition reimbursement program.
Mitch Tempus, owner of two Fernando’s Cafe & Cantina restaurants in the Omaha area, said he was trying unsuccessfully to attract some of the waiters and bussers he laid off last year, even offering increases that increased its labor costs by more than 20%. and raised the average wage to $ 13 or $ 14 an hour.
And with the new recruits, “it’s even difficult to retain them,” he said. “Sometimes people work for two or three days and then we won’t see them again.”
Pat Keenan, who runs three hotel chains in North Platte, Nebraska, said he had given up on plans to open a restaurant near a hotel because “the chances that we have it on staff are almost zero “.
He added: “I would call 2021 the year of the hourly employee,” he said. “They have more power than they’ve had and more money than they’ve ever had.”
Keenan said it was time for the federal government to come up with an immigration reform plan that would allow more immigrants to work legally in the United States.
âI think we’re back to where we need an influx of hard working people again,â Keenan said. “I hate to say it, but I feel like a lot of existing Americans feel a little empowered and have lost their work ethic.”
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