Does Governor Mike DeWine Understand the Realities of Unemployment?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Last week, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine rejected federal stimulus money that was intended to supply unemployed Ohioans an extension of the $300 a week benefits through September 2021. Instead, the final payments will be cut off after June 26.

If you or someone you know were counting on these checks, you’re probably hoping there was a really good reason for the governor to turn down your money.

Yes. He wants you to get back to work.

Does Governor DeWine prioritize business owners over citizens?

Why on earth would anyone turn down free money from the federal government? (And I’m calling it free, but from another perspective, it comes from citizens’ taxes and is being redistributed to them in a time of hardship.)

The explicit reason the governor gave for his declining this federal assistance is that business owners in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing told him that they were having problems finding workers to fill their newly re-opened businesses. DeWine concluded that there were too many recipients who were living comfortably on these benefits – in some cases the combination of their state unemployment and the $300 weekly federal supplement might exceed the full salary they received from the job they lost.

The unemployed shouldn’t be allowed to “freeload” and should be forced to resume their productive place in the workplace immediately.

But this assumption, does beg the question – what jobs will they be “returning” to? I put “returning” in quotes because a lot of the business owners who pressured Gov. DeWine to end the federal unemployment payments don’t expect to be getting the exact same employees that they laid off. They’ll simply be satisfied to have a large pool of unemployed individuals, low on funds and needy of work.

Critics of the decision to turn down the federal unemployment aid point out that if employers are having problems attracting workers, it’s a sure sign that they need to pay a higher, fairer wage. After all, when any resource is in short supply, its price rises. Why should labor be any different?

Is this really going to solve the gaps in the job market?

Let’s take a look at some of the jobs in question. Lt. Governor Jon Husted rattled off a number of jobs that are in dire need of workers and that he believes can be trained for quickly, many in time for the June 26 cutoff date: STNA certifications (State Tested Nursing Assistants) CNC machinist, CDL truck drivers, marketing analysts, implementation managers, and manufacturing technicians.

My suspicion is that workers in society are not so interchangeable that they can easily be plugged into these positions. I feel I’m a competent, capable, moderately adaptable adult with a long, varied history in the U.S. workforce and I don’t have the aptitude for a single one of these jobs.

Don’t get me wrong. They sound like great jobs. I think that American high schools, community colleges, libraries, and community centers should be much more proactive in promoting well-paid skilled trades jobs.

But I’m possibly the least tech-savvy person you’re likely to encounter. I also have back and shoulder injuries to account for. No, if I was thrown into the job market right now, there’s a good chance I’d wind up in the minimum wage sector and I’m concerned that will be the fate of many of the people who are about to have their unemployment benefits cut off.

And I can definitely relate to the situation they’re in.

Unemployment is no joke

I’ve been through at least two very lengthy bouts of unemployment in both of the two cities that I’ve spent the most years of my life in – Cleveland and Los Angeles. The latest of these job hunts was in L.A., took place when I was fifty-two years old, lasted for seven months, and ended in failure.

My job history was eclectic, since I’ve done everything from teaching sociology at a community college to working in casinos for over five years. Writers’ room assistant. File clerk in a law firm. Catering. Tutoring. Accounts payable clerk for a travel charter company. Every kind of temp job, including housecleaning.

I wasn’t picky. I would gladly have taken a cashiering job at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. But I couldn’t even get an interview. And believe me, I took all the advanced degrees and teaching experience off those particular resumes – I tried to tailor the experience and skills listed for the precise jobs I was applying for. I went through all the red tape to get a substitute teacher’s job. And then couldn’t get a single assignment.

One problem is that every year, L.A. is flooded with thousands of wannabe actors, screenwriters (that was me), directors, producers, models, musicians…all looking to make their big break. Until that happens, they flood and saturate the temp and service job market, and finding any kind of decent work can start to feel like the impossible dream.

My sad episode with the unemployment office

So, I had just been laid off from my job at a tutoring center because it was the end of the school year, and the office was closing till fall. I applied for unemployment and the company contested my right to file the claim. Why? Because they had offered me a position when the tutoring center closed. They wanted me to go door to door and stand out on street corners and hand out flyers about their tutoring services. It was of course, for a lower hourly wage than tutoring. But more importantly, it was a job that was going to have me on my feet all day which was a no-go for me.

I had just re-injured my back and I was still in the early stages of a recovery that would take a few months. A standing job was out of the question. And yet, the tutoring company was prepared to block my unemployment because someone who had applied for and worked for a tutoring job wasn’t prepared to spend a painful day on my feet handing out flyers in low-income neighborhoods (did I mention that part?) and possibly to people whose language I couldn’t speak.

I eventually got my day in court, and what a painful day it was. The sixty-something judge kept making faces and shaking her head as I explained my side of the story. In her eyes, I had been offered suitable employment and was too picky to accept the offer of a reasonable job. Unemployment benefits were denied.

That was the beginning of the end for me. As I mentioned, a seven-month job hunt followed (with much debt added to my credit cards) and I was headed home to Cleveland, after seventeen years in L.A.

But aren’t some people just being lazy and not wanting to work?

Would it surprise you to know that 80% of unemployed Ohioans returned to work by December 2020, before exhausting their unemployment benefits? That was also notably before the widespread vaccinations began – which means a lot of people put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace at a much riskier time. By and large, people want to work.

Yes, there are certainly going to be people who turn down the opportunity to earn $350-a-week take home, when they can make $500 a week on unemployment. I’m not arguing that that didn’t happen for many people. It would actually be irrational to return to work under those circumstances.

The thing is, those federal benefits weren’t going to last forever. The extension was only until September 2021 – a few more months to pay bills, to sort out the complications of child care, to job hunt and/or train for a position that’s a good match with their experience and abilities and one that pays well enough to live comfortably on. There are far too many minimum wage jobs that still qualify a full-time worker to seek out public assistance to support their families. What was to be gained by denying these Ohioans a final few months to transition to a post-pandemic life?

Someone’s got to flip the burgers. Someone has to bus the tables. Someone has to return to low-paid, unpopular jobs - for the good of the employers and their profits. I hope I’m not putting too many words in Governor DeWine’s mouth about what his priorities are here. He’s actually very straightforward about his agenda of ensuring that business owners be provided with a large pool of unemployed workers.

Are Ohio residents okay with this?

For those 80% of Ohio unemployment recipients that got back to work by December 2020, terminating their own benefits was a decision they made for themselves.

Cutting off money that the federal government intended for unemployed Ohioans to use in whatever manner they needed until September 2021 – that was a decision made for them. By their governor.

Only time will tell how the Ohio voters who put him into office are going to feel about this.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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