The complaint has become ubiquitous: businesses are hiring, but no one wants to work. April’s employment data revealed that the labor shortage is more severe than economists had expected. In Florida, even with encouraging steps from Governor Ron DeSantis, we’re seeing the trend firsthand.
For the past several years, the Florida nonprofit I operate, Better Together, has worked with local churches and volunteers to hold hiring events that have connected 8,000 people across the Sunshine State with job openings. One in four attendees get hired on the spot; 60 percent find work within six weeks. On average, about 400 job seekers attend each event, with people from all walks of life lining up along entire blocks in search of opportunity.
Not this year. At three job fairs held in late April—in Bonita Springs, St. Petersburg, and Lehigh Acres—only 87 people showed up. We promoted the event heavily through media and grassroots efforts. We advertised access to hundreds of employers paying up to $25 per hour for jobs in construction, retail, hospitality, health care, and more. We offered free haircuts, interview clothing, bus passes, and one-on-one job coaching.
Where was everyone? They were getting paid to stay home. In 2020, at the height of the lockdowns, Congress expanded federal unemployment insurance (UI) to $600 a month. The boost has continued at the clip of $300 a week and seems to be discouraging people from working. According to the Foundation for Government Accountability, the average unemployed Floridian can collect $908 per month in state UI; with other benefits, some Floridians can get up to $3,652 per month—more than $20 per hour.
Discouraging work has bad social effects. Work is about a lot more than a paycheck. Holding a job confers dignity, builds new skills, and provides structure and accountability.
I’ve witnessed the transformative power of work in my own life. My father, released from prison when I was a young child, struggled to find a path forward. Finally, he caught a break when a local plumber offered him work. It kept him sober, giving him a new beginning that allowed him to reclaim his identity, model responsibility, and put his family back together. Had he been paid more money to stay home, his story—and our family’s—could have ended much differently.
Not everyone will be so lucky these days. Our volunteers and professional family-care coordinators are trying to help a mother who lost her job during the pandemic. Raising her children alone, she filed for unemployment to pay the bills while schools were closed. After months of unstructured time at home, she is struggling with alcohol and depression, hasn’t attended our job fairs, and won’t let us introduce her to employers. We had previously worked with her to reduce the involvement of child protective services in her life; now, she is in danger of losing her children to foster care.
Citing the “abundance of job openings” at a news conference last week, Governor DeSantis announced that he would reinstate the work-search requirements for unemployment benefits that were waived at the peak of the pandemic—an important step in encouraging Floridians to get back to work. Other states have taken even more aggressive measures. Still, expanded federal UI remains in place in most states. The federal government should allow the enhanced federal unemployment bonus to expire.
In Florida, our network of employers, churches, and volunteers are seeing the effects of the labor shortage up close. We have dozens of additional job fairs scheduled in places like Tampa, Sarasota, Miami, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers, and we hope to see better attendance. But the longer that struggling people stay home, the harder it will be for them to reintegrate into society.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images