There are 431 people reported in Iowa Workforce Development data as currently unemployed in Emmet County – that’s 4.3% of the population. Emmet County is second only to Dickinson County for the percentage of people who are unemployed in rural Northwest Iowa counties.
The narrative that continued pandemic unemployment benefits are the cause of employers being unable to fill positions is popular, but data shows another story.
The pandemic unemployment story added a twist this week with the governor opting out of continued federal benefits to Iowa workers.
Tuesday, Governor Kim Reynolds announced that Iowa would end its participation in several federal pandemic unemployment programs, citing a severe workforce shortage.
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend stated Monday in a memo to the governor that Iowa had 60,900 unemployed persons, and the IowaWORKS website showed over 66,000 job openings, with most in retail and healthcare.
In Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which targets self-employed, underemployed, independent contractors and those unable to work as a result of COVID-19, there are 8,379 claimants who have received over 52 weeks of PUA payments. In the most recent claim week reported, 14,570 claimants received PUA benefits for a total of $4,911,010.
PEUC provided claimants an extra 51 weeks of additional benefits beyond the state-provided 26 weeks. Since the start of the program, 14,450 claimants have received over 25 weeks of PEUC, beyond the initial 26 weeks of benefits Iowa provides. The most recent week reported a distribution of $8,200,021.
For Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provides $300 additional weekly benefit to all types of unemployment insurance payments, 49,912 received benefits (keeping in mind that all of these beneficiaries were included in one of the other federal benefit categories and/or regular state unemployment) and the total payments for the most recent week were $19,712,700.
On average, state unemployment pays $390.65 per week, PEUC $335.78 (these recipients have exhausted state unemployment and are not double-collecting with state benefits), and PUA $244.28.
Townsend recommended the termination of Iowa’s participation in all of the programs, including Mixed-Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which had not been implemented in the state, and reinstating employer charges for state unemployment claims, whether or not COVID-19-related. Townsend said, “Iowa is open for business and we must take all necessary actions to assist with that recovery by returning Iowans to the workforce as quickly as possible.”
Dr. Dave Farnum of North Star Techologies in Estherville said he posted a job on an agriculture employment website in April, a $20 per hour job, and has received no inquiries. This is unprecedented for Farnum.
“When I was looking for help a few years ago, I probably had 30 applications, and they were from Blue Earth and West Bend and throughout the area. People want to do this work, usually,” Dr. Farnum said.
The data does not show people are remaining unemployed due to continuing pandemic unemployment compensation making it more lucrative to stay at home and eat bon bons than to get to work. According to the trade publication Candy Industry, while consumers were purchasing more candy in general in month-over-month comparison from the previous year through the end of 2020, and shoppers bought different package sizes, brands and items than patterns indicated before, they did not increase their online buying in any significant way. Chocolate sales gained 5.5 percent. Non-chocolate sales began to come back with convenience store traffic rebounding, gaining 1.6 percent. Gum and mint sales are challenged, perhaps indicating shoppers encounter fewer people for whom they’d brush their breath.
While the vast majority of Americans have consumed chocolate (92 percent) and nonchocolate (80 percent) candy since the pandemic began, 10% have reduced their candy consumption, reporting they are taking fewer grocery trips, are trying to avoid pandemic pound gains, and trying to not be that person on the couch eating bon bons, but rather bringing balance to their days.
Most of the unprecedented spikes in candy sales came in March 2020, as shoppers prepared for empty shelves and shelter-in-place mandates.
With restrictions relaxed in most places, including northwest Iowa, while retail sales are tracking well above 2019 levels, no cohort of candy crushers appears in any data set to be taking advantage of pandemic payments to sweeten their bank accounts.
Why then are positions staying unfilled as workplaces scramble to cover, and Help Wanted signs decorate most of Emmet County’s shop windows?
It’s not a lack of people willing to work.
It’s a lack of people.
The vast majority of working-age residents have jobs already, and with the low unemployment rates in the area extending for years, there are simply not enough people to hire.
This does have economic consequences. If a business is inadequately staffed and customers have to wait longer, they’re told they can’t get to their repair, delivery or installation, and they go out of town, they wait another year to make the purchase, they go online or they do something else. That’s a loss of sales for the local businesses, loss of tax revenue for local and state government, and the rural word-of-mouth culture that downgrades a community’s reputation when a shopper tells everyone that they had to wait or didn’t get the service or product at a local business and they had to go to the megaplex out of town or order online.
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