RETURN-TO-WORK INCENTIVES: It’s Time for the Next Tool to Support Our Businesses

Over the weekend, the Albuquerque Journal reported that a recent study showed New Mexico tied for third-highest unemployment rate in the country at 8.2% last month. In the article, a University of New Mexico economist observes that the state’s unemployment rate is often on the high end of the national spectrum, and that our economy typically takes longer to recover from slumps than our sister states.

So what are we doing to help ourselves?

Nationally, unemployment rates have been stubborn this year. As COVID-19 vaccination numbers tick up and positive cases trend down, businesses are opening back up – but not without challenges as they struggle to hire help. Some blame substantial unemployment benefits, padded further with an extra $300 or $600 in emergency assistance each week; others suggest Americans’ reluctance to return to certain sectors is an indictment of employers that won’t offer benefits, higher pay, or predictive scheduling.

But whatever it is, New Mexico’s employers – and our economy – are in a bind, and they need leadership.

On May 9, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the restoration of the work search requirement to continue to receive unemployment payments. This requires program participants to document at least two work search efforts each week, and given the stage of the pandemic, it’s appropriate. There are jobs to be had now. But New Mexico still lags behind with its persistently high unemployment rate, and it’s hurting our business’ ability to stay open too. It’s time for a new tool.

Arizona, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma are offering return-to-work bonuses of up to $2,000 to workers who take full-time jobs. Their programs differ in some of the guidelines, whether it’s a maximum wage or a limited availability of bonuses that require an application, but they all agree in principle: if jobs are available, and they are, it’s better to pay people to go back to work than to stay home.

New Mexico’s business community has been through the longest 14 months they could have imagined. Though their outlook is improving, businesses are not out of the woods. They now depend on wise and innovative leadership to get them through this final push to a “normal” summer. Return-to-work bonuses could offer just the breakthrough they need – for an immediate boost and to jumpstart the years-long recovery that lies ahead for our state.

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