Editorial: Changes to work search requirements may not be enough

The Maine Department of Labor announced last week that it would tighten its work search requirements for those collecting unemployment beginning May 23.   

During the pandemic, the state’s traditional work search requirements were suspended and reasons for refusing work were broadened to include health concerns and the need to care for your children. This change now means that for the first time in more than a year those who are unemployed need to participate in “job search activities” and risk losing their benefits if they refuse a reasonable job offer. The change also gives employers who have offered a job that has been refused the ability to report that individual to the state via an online form.   

 “Thousands of Maine people lost their jobs during the pandemic, through no fault of their own. Now it is our goal to get them back to work,” Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a release. “With vaccines more widely available, and with businesses re-opened now and in need of help – especially with the busy tourism season approaching – we want people to rejoin the workforce, earn a living and aid in our state’s economic recovery.”  

In Bar Harbor, like many tourist-driven parts of Maine, workers seem to be in short supply. Help wanted signs can be found in windows along Main Street and beyond and business owners are scrambling as they try to figure out how to appropriately staff for what many believe will be a busy summer.   

But what exactly is a “job search requirement”?And will reinstating them help employers fill all the open positions they have? 

Before this change was even announced, we heard quite a few reports from business owners who had taken the time to schedule an interview only to have the prospective candidate not show up. Similarly, reports of hired individuals not showing up for their first day also seem to be ticking upward. These no-shows put business owners – many who are already clamoring for staff – in a tough position. However, for the person seeking to keep their unemployment benefits, the mere action of applying for, interviewing for or contacting a business owner to inquire if they have an open job is good enough under the state’s newly expanded list of search-related activities.   

For many years now, employers have been facing staff shortages in nearly all sectors of the employment landscape. Businesses have had to curtail hours and days open as they’ve worked to find the right balance between demand and staffing. With a short summer season, every dollar counts, and having to close an establishment due to a lack of staffing when demand is high is a recipe for disaster.   

While we agree that the state needs to do all it can to reenergize its workforce, we believe that mandating search requirements, and then expanding them greatly, is not actually going to achieve the desired effect of a wholesale return to the workforce.   

We agree that the unemployment system needs to be overhauled, but we also need to take a good look at employment. Currently, Maine’s unemployment rate is just above 5 percent, down from a record 9 percent in April 2020. Many people have returned to the workforce, but not equally in all sectors. In sectors where wages are low and benefits are scarce, workers have been slow to return. For them, enhanced unemployment benefits are likely more attractive than minimum wage. That is the first problem that needs to be addressed.   

As we work our way out of this pandemic, the state needs to take a good look at its workforce while business owners take a good look at their business model. If employees aren’t knocking at your door, you might want to ask yourself why.   

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