Having worked in economic development for a decade before serving in Congress, I’m accustomed to visiting with employers in my neck of the woods. I’ve always found value in thanking them for doing business in our region, asking them how business is going, and trying to get a sense of the issues keeping them up at night. But every now and then, one of those visits surprises me.
A couple of years ago, I visited with an employer on the Olympic Peninsula and asked them what was causing them heartburn. They explained that their growth was hindered by the inability to fill positions. They told me that they would literally hire dozens of people that day if they could simply find folks that could dependably show up and do the job. They made clear that, despite the high rate of unemployment in their community, they had a lot of jobs that needed people.
Later that same day, I visited the public health department in that same county and asked them about the challenges they saw for their community. They explained that there were hundreds — if not thousands — of people who needed jobs. Many of them, they explained, had experienced long-term unemployment, and were struggling to get back into the job market because they faced barriers — like finding child care for their kids, reliable transportation to get to and from work, and the challenge of learning new skills.
It’s important to recognize that this was before the pandemic.
And the numbers suggest the challenge is getting worse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March 4.2 million Americans were long-term unemployed (jobless for 27 weeks or more), which is up by 3.1 million since February 2020. In March, these long-term unemployed accounted for 43.4% of the total number of Americans unemployed.
Unfortunately, we know that the effects of long-term unemployment can be devastating to families, to potential workers, and to our communities. Prolonged joblessness can lock workers out of the labor market, with research showing that employers are less likely to hire applicants with long gaps in their work history. Those who are unemployed long-term are more likely to drop out of the labor market altogether. And when workers do get hired, the long-term unemployment they’ve endured is linked to lower wages — which reduces the economic potential of the entire economy.
Some of my Republican colleagues have misguidedly criticized folks experiencing long-term unemployment as being lazy. Many have consistently opposed extending unemployment benefits during this crisis.
Sadly, this approach fails to acknowledge that the problem of long-term unemployment existed for too many before this pandemic — and has only been exacerbated by it. It fails to acknowledge the significant barriers that many folks face — from child care to transportation — as they scrap and claw to get back into the workplace.
If we are strategic, we can solve problems for employers that are desperate to create jobs and grow their businesses and we can help people who are struggling to get into the workforce.
That’s why I recently introduced the Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.
This legislation would provide targeted funding to local communities to help generate work opportunities and get these unemployed Americans back into the workforce. It does this by, among other things, providing support to help people overcome the barriers keeping them out of the workforce in the first place — such as transportation, child care, job readiness training, substance-abuse treatment or assistance finding a permanent job — and training programs that build skills to sustain permanent employment.
In addition, the bill also provides competitive grants to communities to support innovation and investment in areas hit hardest by high poverty and chronic joblessness. These grants would support worker-owned enterprises, economic development strategies, and even temporarily subsidized jobs — as endorsed by President Biden’s American Jobs Plan — to create opportunities so people can earn an income, pay their bills and get back into the workforce. At a time when employers are clamoring for more workers and when Democrats and Republicans are concerned about the ability of Americans to be able to live with dignity, this is an idea that should garner bipartisan support.
Experts on workforce development and on addressing poverty have praised this approach as a proven way to combat the jobs crisis and create economic opportunity — which is why the bill is backed by the Service Employees International Union, the National Urban League, the United States Workforce Association, the National Skills Coalition and a host of others. That includes Indivar Dutta-Gupta of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, who said the proposal would “expand economic activity and help ensure that working people facing lengthy unemployment spells simply have a chance to engage in meaningful paid work.”
Ultimately, the Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act is about creating jobs and opportunity for people at a time when that’s needed more than ever.