Federal supplemental unemployment benefits have far outpaced state unemployment payments, according to the most recent data available from WorkForce West Virginia.
From January through March, the $300 weekly unemployment supplement through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and the $300 weekly payments to the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, has amounted to a cash infusion of $184.87 million into the state.
Additionally, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation — a federally funded extension of state unemployment benefits of up to 13 weeks for workers who have exhausted state unemployment benefits — provided $62 million of benefits to unemployed West Virginians during the three-month period.
By comparison, regular state-funded unemployment benefits for the three months totaled $54.63 million, according to WorkForce data.
Gov. Jim Justice announced on May 14 he will cut off the supplemental federal benefits effective on June 19, even though Congress voted in the American Rescue Plan Act to extend the pandemic relief to Sept. 6.
Justice has said he is acting on the behest of small business operators who claim they cannot fill job vacancies because of the enhanced benefits.
“If you’re just taking advantage of this program, I think that time is over,” Justice said in announcing the benefits cutoff. “West Virginians have access to thousands of jobs right now. We want everybody back to work.”
Regular unemployment benefits averaged $18.21 million a month for the three months, down from an average of $27.27 million a month during the same period in 2020, as many unemployed exhausted state benefits and moved to federal PEUC benefits, which averaged $20.67 million a month for the first three months of 2021.
The $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment payments totaled $56.50 million in January, $58.02 million in February, and $55.58 million in March. The $300 weekly supplemental payments to the self-employed totaled $5.03 million in January, $4.86 million in February and $4.88 million in March.
Justice has downplayed the potential impact of the loss of 11 weeks of federal supplemental payments on the state economy, saying last week, “Wages trump unemployment dollars. That’s all there is to it. At the end of the day, we want people working.”
Justice has discussed using federal pandemic funding to provide $500 payments to unemployed West Virginians who return to work and stay on the job for 90 days, saying Tuesday, “They probably need an extra little bump since they’re losing some of their unemployment money.”
He initially considering having employers provide a $500 matching bonus to new hires, but ruled out making that a requirement on Tuesday, stating, “I don’t see any reason to put any additional pain on our small businesses.”
Regular state unemployment benefits max out at $424 a week for persons who had salaries of $42,100 or more, with average unemployment benefits of $242 a week.
Justice is one of 24 Republican governors who have announced plans to cut off the federal unemployment benefits early.