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Republican Governors In 25 States End Jobless Aid Early

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

More than 300,000 people lost their pandemic unemployment benefits this weekend. Many more will see their benefits cut in the coming weeks. Republican governors in 25 states have decided to end jobless aid ahead of schedule in an effort to push people back to work. For unemployed workers in eight states, this is the last week they'll receive an extra $300 in federal aid.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So Congress had authorized these extra $300 a week payments until early September. Why are some states cutting them off earlier than that?

HORSLEY: Some employers have been complaining that the enhanced benefits that Congress put in place during the pandemic are making it harder for them to attract workers. You know, they're effectively having to compete with those benefits. And in some cases, that means having to pay more than they're used to or than they'd like to. Three hundred dollars a week in supplemental benefits amounts to about 7.50 an hour for a full-time worker. And that argument from employers has resonated with a lot of Republican governors, especially after a disappointing April when the country added just 278,000 jobs, barely a quarter of what was expected. Job gains in May were significantly stronger, but still not as strong as a lot of people were expecting. So by taking away this federal safety net program, Republican governors think they might encourage more people to take jobs that otherwise they wouldn't, especially in lower-paying industries like restaurants.

MCCAMMON: And what can we say about how that is likely to work out? What does this mean for the affected workers?

HORSLEY: Well, obviously, for many people, it's going to be a hardship. The extra jobless aid has been a critical lifeline for millions of people, helping to pay the rent, helping to keep food on the table. For some, the loss of aid might actually push them into the job market. Keep in mind, though, there are other factors at play. While vaccination levels have been rising, a lot of people still are not protected against the coronavirus, so they might be wary of going back to work, especially in a job with lots of face-to-face contact. A lot of parents out there also caring for children who may not have the usual access to in-person schooling right now or other kinds of day care.

We've talked a lot about the extra $300 a week that's going away. Most of these 25 GOP governors are also phasing out the special pandemic program for gig workers, as well as benefits for those who've been out of work for more than six months. Overall, about 4 million workers in these 25 states are going to have their benefits cut off early. And most of those are going to go from having a pretty substantial safety net to having no help at all. This coming weekend, we're going to see benefits cut off in Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, Nebraska, Indiana, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Alabama.

MCCAMMON: And so should we expect that this will result in more people going back to work sooner?

HORSLEY: Well, that is the big question. We had a preview last summer when the original $600 a week unemployment benefit that Congress passed in the beginning of the pandemic went away in all 50 states. And at that time, we did not see a sudden mass movement from unemployment into the workforce. Maybe the situation's different now. Vaccines are more widely available, but it's hard to know. Thanks to our polarized politics, we are going to have this natural experiment now, where half the states are following one course, cutting benefits off early. The other half are going to keep paying through early September. We will see what kind of difference that makes in all 50 state job markets. For the 4 million affected workers, though, it's not much fun being a guinea pig.

MCCAMMON: Sure enough. NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.