Kansas lawmakers push to end COVID-19 extra unemployment benefits

Jordan Meier
Morning Sun
Sen. Moran holding a custom C02 car made by PITSCO and gifted to him at the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet Thursday.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — As new COVID-19 cases rapidly decrease throughout the county and state, lawmakers are pushing for a return to “normalcy” in every sense of the word, including ending increased unemployment benefits that have been a trademark of government aid during the pandemic.  

“The federal government made a mistake in my opinion in getting involved in the unemployment insurance,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said. “People want to employ people and there is a disincentive if you’re earning more income, more revenue if you’re not working because of that unemployment benefit.”   

In addition to Moran, the other members of the Kansas GOP Delegation — which include Sen. Roger Marshall and representatives Ron Estes, Jake LaTurner and Tracey Mann — authored a letter last week urging Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to end the extra federal unemployment benefits passed by Congress earlier this year.  

“Across the state, we’re hearing more and more from businesses searching for the employees they need to reopen yet struggling to make hires due to the generous benefits offered through the unemployment system,” the Kansas GOP delegation said in the letter.  

“The extension of the generous $300 per week in additional federal benefits until September, when coupled with the extended state benefits, provides a lucrative government incentive to stay home despite clear signs that the economy is recovering and life is trending toward normal […] We must end the federal incentive to stay home so that we can truly reopen the economy, provide Kansans with meaningful and purposeful work, and get our country back to normal.” 

The letter outlines concern from the cosigning lawmakers that by continuing to implement the increased unemployment benefits, it is discouraging those without jobs to look for work because they get paid more on unemployment.  

“The continuation of the additional federal unemployment compensation benefits means that, on average, recipients are earning $15-20 per hour to stay home,” the letter said. “For many in the hospitality or restaurant industries, these extended temporary benefits provide more than or equal to what an employer can offer.” 

The struggle to fill jobs is something that has recently been discussed at a Pittsburg City Commission meeting by members of the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber even held a job fair last week to help fill the many job openings in the area.  

“That 3.7 percent [unemployment rate] is obviously great, it means your economy is healthy,” Chamber President Blake Benson said at the meeting, “but it also means it can be difficult for your businesses and your employers to find new employees.”   

These lawmakers are not the only ones urging the governor to end this extra benefit. Earlier this week the Kansas Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter urging the governor to end the extra benefit.  

“Many employers are finding it nearly impossible to fully staff their businesses which impacts the supply chain and timely delivery of goods and services,” the Kansas chamber’s letter said.  

The letter was cosigned by nearly 150 businesses across the state, some of which said did not know they were being signed onto the letter, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.  

Some lawmakers have said that the fact that people get paid more to be unemployed signals a need to raise the minimum wage throughout the country. Earlier this year Democrats in the Kansas legislature proposed legislation that would nearly double the minimum wage.  

“We wanted to be out front on that issue in making sure that we were addressing that while also ensuring that people that live in Kansas can earn a livable wage,” Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa said in a Kansas City Star article.  

In Kansas, the minimum wage has sat at $7.25 an hour since 2009, or about $15,000 a year full-time, according to the Associated Press.  

Raising the minimum wage has been a hot topic for many years and was even originally a part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan — the latest COVID-19 relief package — before being ultimately scrapped from the bill.  

Moran said he did not believe that raising minimum wage should be an issue legislated by the federal government and instead should be something the states handle in their legislatures.  

“My general view is that the federal government is not the place to make the decision, it ought to be a state issue,” Moran said, “Because Pittsburg, Kansas is different than Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a minimum wage here should be a different amount than someplace else.”  

As an alternative to the weekly $300 payments, Moran said he has cosponsored legislation called the Back to Work Bonus Act which would “allow states to use Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation funds to provide a one-time, lump-sum payment to incentivize workers to return to the workplace after employer verification of their hours and earnings.” 

These letters from both lawmakers and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce come in the wake of a report published by the U.S. Department of Labor showing the national unemployment rate increased from 6 to 6.1 percent in the month of April.  

“In April, the U.S. economy was projected to add close to one million jobs, building on the momentum of increasing vaccinations and over 900,000 jobs added in March,” the letter from Kansas lawmakers said. “However, the April jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that only 266,000 jobs were added nationally, despite over 8 million jobs being available across the country.”  

However, in Kansas, according to data from the Kansas Department of Labor, unemployment decreased from 3.7 percent in March of this year to 3.5 percent in April.  

“We've seen significant improvement in the unemployment rate throughout the past year, from a historic high of 12.6 percent in April 2020, down to 3.5 percent just twelve months later,” said Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Amber Shultz in a press release on April unemployment. “Great progress is being made as we are approaching pre-pandemic unemployment rates." 

According to an article from the Associated Press, if Gov. Kelly decided to end the $300 per week benefit, she would be joining more than 20 states with Republican governors who have opted to end the benefits early, including neighboring Missouri. The AP reported that as of last week, Kelly said she is reviewing the issue. 

Jordan Meier is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. She can be reached at jmeier@morningsun.net