Federal unemployment benefits are ending. Now what?

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I’m not sure if it was an ironic or suggestive decision by U.S. lawmakers, but most federal unemployment benefits expired on Labor Day.

About 1 million North Carolinians, roughly one-fifth of the total working population, lost $300 a week in supplemental income, and many lost their benefits entirely. For the first time ever, gig workers, contractors and the otherwise self-employed had qualified for unemployment assistance under the government’s pandemic response programs. Now they’re back to fending for themselves.

So what does that mean for the labor market? Probably less than employers would hope.

“You probably know if you’re talking to business leaders, there’s nobody applying for any jobs right now,” Craig Sullivan, President of Siler City’s AD Tubi told me (see my full article on his company in this week’s edition). “... It’s nearly impossible to move forward with hiring anyone. In my mind, there’s no labor available in the surrounding area.”

I have talked with many business leaders, as Sullivan suspected, and the consensus matches his perspective — no one has been able to find qualified workers.

“Since we’ve been in the pandemic, it’s really hard to find people to come work for you,” Blake Arnett, plant director at Pittsboro’s 3M, told me last week. “I think everyone is feeling that.”

But the numbers would suggest otherwise. Since 2021 began, the unemployment rate has not exceeded 6%. Recent figures are in the low 4s, as good as pre-pandemic levels. So why are businesses understaffed? The apparent disconnect lies in a technicality: the unemployment rate doesn’t count people who aren’t looking for work. Presumably, there’s a population segment of people who worked before the pandemic, and do not work now, but don’t contribute to our current unemployment rate. Percentages, therefore, miss the point — total worker volume has decreased in the last year and a half.

“You’ve got the danger of working with a pandemic still going on, and that scares people,” Greg Lewis told me shortly before opening his new restaurant, The Sycamore, in June. “And then there’s the cushion of unemployment payments that are hard for people to break from.”

The average unemployment recipient made $235 a week from the state, according to a Spectrum News report this summer. Add in $300 a week in federal stimulus, and beneficiaries earned the equivalent of almost $13.40 an hour at a full-time job — while sitting at home. Many qualified for higher state payments equal to $15 per hour or higher.

“How can I hire people on with a salary that’s competitive with what they can get from the government?” Lewis said.

He couldn’t. And neither could most employers with entry-level jobs. Many politicians expect job vacancies to fill now that unemployment offers less incentive to stay at home. But some economists disagree.

“It will certainly help,” Duke Professor of Economics Connel Fullenkamp said in an interview with WRAL. “But it’s not going to be the big solution everyone is hoping for. There are many things that are keeping people away from work.”

The most obvious deterrent is COVID-19’s lingering presence. Low-wage workers might rejoin the labor force to replace their lost benefits, but higher earners were never supplanting their incomes with government funds.

“I’m not sure when we’ll see it change,” Sullivan said of hiring challenges across industries, “but I hope we can figure out what it is that people are looking for.”

Other business news

A Chicago-based real estate company purchased Siler City’s Walgreens last month, according to land transaction records, as first reported by the Triangle Business Journal.

The company, InCommercial Property Group, bought the 1.6-acre property at 1523 East 11th Street for $5.5 million from Fayetteville-based Family Futures Inc.

Family Futures, formally known as Taco Properties Inc., spent $6.39 million for the site in 2014.

Walgreens customers are unlikely to notice any change the store’s building or operation, a company representative told me.

“We don’t change any of the existing buildings normally,” Operations Manager Joann Saguto said. “We pretty much just buy leases. We have more than 300 Walgreens, Dollar Generals and stores like that around the country.”

InCommercial acts as an owner, financier, manager and broker for properties nationwide, its website says. They include single-tenant properties, shopping centers, office buildings and medical centers.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.


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