Housing advocate: Worker crunch due to a lot more than federal supplements

Jobless workers demonstrate in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

Federal unemployment supplements are not the sole reason Ohio employers are having a hard time finding workers, an Ohio housing advocate said Monday.

Gov. Mike DeWine earlier this month announced that on June 26 he would end Ohio’s participation in a federal program that provided $300 a week in additional unemployment pay. The money was intended to help with pandemic-related job losses and DeWine joined numerous other Republican governors in doing ending it. 

“The federal assistance is in some cases certainly discouraging people from going back,” DeWine said at the time. But when asked if he had any data to support that assertion, he conceded that he didn’t.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, took to Twitter last week to claim that federal unemployment supplements were keeping people out of the workforce. But, as with DeWine, Portman had no answer when asked for data.

Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, on Monday said several other factors appear to be at least as responsible for the seeming worker shortage.

“A lot of people don’t have childcare. Kids going back to school has been fairly uneven,” he said, referring to the mix of at-home and in-person instruction that has bedeviled many working parents. “Alternatives for child care have been in fairly short supply.”

Child care workers might illustrate some of the other factors that Faith believes are feeding the worker crunch.

Average pay is low — about $21,000 a year in Ohio, according to ZipRecruiter. Those who work with children are exposed to a host of diseases, including potentially lethal covid, and they may have child care issues of their own.

So many of those workers might be reluctant to return to those jobs, making it harder for other parents to return to the workforce as well.

Instead of trying to drive people back to work by slashing their benefits, Faith said businesses should try to draw them back by paying better.

“It’s not like they need a jolt to go to work,” he said. “They need a living wage.”

That’s something great numbers of Ohioans were not receiving even before the pandemic. About 400,000 households were paying half or more of their monthly income in rent and about a quarter of all Ohioans were poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

So any government benefits for food, medicine and housing working people among that number receive are effectively supplements to employers who pay so scantily.

Faith said the pandemic prompted Congress to disburse unprecedented amounts to keep people housed and get places for the homeless. That’s important for a lot of reasons — including that housing insecurity can be a major barrier to finding and keeping a job.

Faith said the cash influx was so great that it strained the capacity of social service organizations, which have low-wage problems of their own, to effectively administer the funds. But, he said, he’s at least hearing anecdotes that the social investment is paying off.

“Some local agencies are reporting that there’s a decline in people seeking shelter,” Faith said. “Some say they haven’t seen it this low in 10 years.”

That may be showing up in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey

Earlier this month, it estimated that 465,000 Ohioans had little or no confidence they could pay the coming month’s rent. During a similar period a year ago that figure was 695,000, or nearly 50% higher.

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