OPINION

Enhanced unemployment benefits aren't keeping Kansas workers at home. Let's not sabotage those most vulnerable.

By Tom Sawyer
Special to Gannett Kansas
Tom Sawyer

Despite the uncertainty created by a once-in-a-century pandemic over the past 14 months, under Gov. Laura Kelly the Kansas economy has recovered with impressive speed.

Ignoring the numbers, Republicans say the enhanced unemployment benefits — $300 per week from the federal government — are bribing Kansans to stay home from work and remain on unemployment. There is no evidence to support this claim.

In 2019, the Wichita Business Journal reported about 56,000 job openings across the state. As of May 2021, the numbers are roughly the same.

Republican posturing suggests Kansas businesses currently face an insurmountable labor shortage caused exclusively by the unemployment enhancement benefits. That is simply not true.

The solution to their hiring woes is crystal-clear: Pay workers a living wage, and they will show up. Some of the industries struggling to rehire workers are among the lowest-paying jobs in Kansas. It is a clear double standard that companies calling to take money away from families received $120.4 million in PPP.

And as though the state’s own numbers aren’t proof enough, a 2020 Yale study found there was zero reason to believe expanded benefits disincentivized work at any point during the pandemic, including as businesses reopen. The study also found that when the benefits expansion went into effect, workers who experienced larger increases in unemployment benefits didn't experience larger declines in employment.

Even J.P. Morgan, a renowned financial investments bank on Wall Street, says ending the $300 benefit is “tied to politics, not economics.”

As we emerge from the worst economic hardship since the Great Depression, Republicans in the Kansas Legislature appear determined to sabotage the economic recovery in a series of partisan political stunts.

First, it was by reviving the disastrous Brownback tax experiment, which gives millions of dollars to multinational corporations while failing to provide tax relief for ordinary, hardworking Kansas families. Then they refused Medicaid expansion, which will cost the state hundreds of millions in federal dollars.

Now they want to punish low-income Kansans — many of whom would have benefited from Medicaid expansion — by removing the $300 some Kansans receive in weekly enhanced unemployment benefits.

Republicans didn’t take issue when businesses across the state received $7.3 billion in financial support from the federal government. So why do they protest when the beneficiaries are Kansas families?

“Ad Astra Per Aspera” is the Kansas state motto meaning “To the stars through difficulties.” There have been few times Kansans rose to the occasion more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities are feeling reinvigorated and revitalized after months of instability.

Now is not the time to compromise the financial security of Kansas families doing their best to recover from the pandemic. They have been through enough.

We must continue to defend our most vulnerable with accountability and a balanced approach. Removing the $300 enhanced benefit will make kids go hungry and bills go unpaid.

Join me in encouraging economic prosperity for all Kansans, not just the wealthy. I urge you to contact Gov. Kelly, your state legislators and members of Congress and tell them to leave the $300 benefit in place.

Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, is the House minority leader.