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'We're Sitting Ducks': Hoosiers Worry About The End Of Federal Unemployment Benefits

Justin Hicks
IPB News

In a little less than a month, Indiana will stop payments of all federal unemployment benefits in hopes it will force workers to fill vacant jobs. 

Tiffany Wagner worked as an in-home health provider, but was laid off when the pandemic struck and it hasn’t returned. A mother of five children in Vincennes, she said the available jobs in her area aren’t paying enough to cover costs of basics like daycare and bills. On June 19, when Indiana opts out of multiple federal relief programs to help those who lost work due to no fault of their own, Wagner said she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“Even if I go back to work, what am I supposed to do, just leave my kids on the corner because I can’t afford child care?” she said. “I mean, like, what do you want me to do?”

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Wagner said she used unemployment benefits to pay bills and never had to rely on housing or utilities relief programs during the pandemic. She’s not sure that’ll remain the case when federal assistance dries up. 

“I made it on my own, but now it’s just not possible,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are going to be freaking out because we’re just sitting ducks.” 

Wagner’s situation is emblematic of what economists say is causing a perceived labor shortage among business owners. Several recommend offering more competitives wages and benefits to workers while making sure there’s also affordable child care. 

Then there’s the case of Bill Rairigh, a self-employed popcorn concessionaire who's been making ends meet with the help of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Just about all his gigs were canceled due to the pandemic. Once benefits are cut, he won’t have any income until his first big money maker in more than a year: the Indiana State Fair. 

“The whole situation of dropping unemployment is going to hurt a whole lot of people that they’re not considering,” he said. “They’re not thinking about the pain they’re going to inflict by taking this away.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb told reporters earlier this week that his focus is on supplying companies with workers that are “skilled up” for the jobs they want to fill.

“Every day I’m hearing from business owners who say ‘I’m only posting half of what I can hire,’” he said. “We’re restricting growth by keeping people on the sidelines.”

Some U.S. senators – most notably Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – have suggested states aren’t allowed to opt out of programs like PUA in the American Rescue Plan. But Holcomb said the state has done its homework and believes it’s “in the right.”

The governor's office has also indicated it does not plan on implementing "return to work bonuses" that a handful of other states are offering as an incentive to get people into jobs. 

Contact reporter Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.

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