Richmond Times-Dispatch: Spanberger tries to bridge divide over unemployment with plan to help newly hired workers with $180 weekly ‘transition payment’

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Faced with a partisan divide over how to encourage people to return to work, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, is proposing a “transition payment” of $180 a week for people who accept a new job.

Spanberger introduced the SUPPORT for New Workers Act on Tuesday as a way to use a portion of the federal unemployment benefits provided to people who lost their jobs during the pandemic to pay them a weekly stipend to return to a workforce that badly needs them.

Co-sponsored with a Republican congressman from Michigan and a Democratic congresswoman from New Jersey, the proposal would provide a $180 weekly benefit through Labor Day to people who return to work, using a portion of the $300 weekly benefit they otherwise would receive by remaining on unemployment.

Spanberger said the enhanced federal unemployment benefits were “a vital lifeline to individuals and families across our country who have lost their jobs in the past year,” but proposed to use some of the money to help people overcome barriers to employment such as lack of affordable child care and transportation.

“By continuing to provide a percentage of federal unemployment benefits to individuals during their transition back into the workforce, this bipartisan, commonsense legislation presents an opportunity to address the staffing needs of our small-business owners and allow individuals to reenter the workforce while still maintaining the fiscal security that they and their children depend on,” she said in an announcement on Tuesday.

Her plan drew immediate support from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations that called it a way for businesses to return to full strength after 15 months in a public health emergency that will end in Virginia next week.

“We need to be doing all that we can to support businesses and encourage more workers to return to work,” chamber President and CEO Barry DuVal said Tuesday. “This legislation offers an innovative approach to incentivize more workers to return, while not creating additional barriers or burdens for employers.”

There were nearly 160,000 fewer employed Virginians in April compared with two years ago, according to federal labor data.

“While there are several contributing factors to our current worker shortage, such as the need for greater access to child care and lingering safety concerns, we need to be doing all that we can to encourage more workers to return and help our businesses that are struggling,” DuVal said.

The plan would provide as much as $1,620 over nine weeks until the federal unemployment benefits expire on Sept. 6, much like the hiring bonuses that many Republican-led states have offered instead of continuing the $300 weekly benefit through Labor Day under the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Joe Biden signed on March 11.

Republicans in the Virginia Senate have proposed a similar plan, replacing jobless aid with a one-time $1,500 hiring bonus for workers who remain in their new jobs at least four weeks. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has resisted calls for an immediate special session to end the federal unemployment aid and use federal rescue plan money for hiring bonuses.

Instead, Northam has proposed a modest “Return to Earn” pilot program to provide matching grants of up to $500 each for workers hired by businesses with as many as 100 employees — or a total hiring bonus of $1,000 — while maintaining federal unemployment support. The plan also would give $500 hiring bonuses to new workers at child care facilities.

The program has been hamstrung by a limited budget of $3 million, but the governor needs approval by the General Assembly to use any of the $4.3 billion that Virginia has received under the federal rescue plan.

The legislature will meet in special session in early August to decide how to spend the federal money.

In an interview, Spanberger said, “It’s not up to the states to reposition the [federal] money in a different way.”

She said her approach would not eliminate the safety net provided for workers by the enhanced federal benefits that unemployed people receive on top of their state benefits, but “recognizes there are challenges people face as they transition back to the workforce.”

Spanberger said incentives are necessary to get people back to work so businesses can recover and operate at full capacity.

“It’s the direct result of concerns in the [congressional] district surrounding hiring,” she said.

Spanberger introduced the bill with Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., as stand-alone legislation, which she hopes the House Ways and Means Committee will advance quickly.

“It’s frankly very, very straightforward,” she said. “It has broad support. It’s bipartisan, and it makes a lot of sense.”

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