Monday, January 19, 2015

Opening the Pandora's Box of unemployment insurance

I am not one to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations,  but during the hustle and bustle of my last-minute holiday shopping I have to admit I did. I was roaming the toy aisles at Target, seeking out Santa’s best find, when I overhead two sales associates stocking shelves and sharing their lives. It seemed mundane until one of them loudly said, “Yeah, well my last day is tomorrow. I already had my waiting week, so my benefits start next week.”

As a human resources/benefits professional my interest was piqued and I was eager to hear more. What benefits had she applied for? Short term disability, possibly?

The answer came soon enough, as she exclaimed, “I can’t believe it though! They are only giving me two months of unemployment! Isn’t that RIDICULOUS?”

I was ready to insert myself into the conversation and share all of my business management and HR wisdom with this poor sales associate, who clearly needed some guidance. This was more than likely a person who had been hired for the holiday season, with a temporary position due to end soon. I am sure the layoff was no surprise to her. What was surprising to me was her shock and disgust at only two whole months of unemployment benefits.

My experience in unemployment has come from years of managing and responding to claims from the employer side. As a business owner and former employee I appreciate what unemployment insurance offers to employees who have been laid off or terminated through no fault of their own.

Unemployment was designed to help keep our nation and its communities economically healthy when things go wrong in the workplace, also when businesses are forced to make tough decisions. By law, employers pay to provide this potentially small cushion of financial stability for each and every employee.

It’s safe to say, however, that in a strong economic recovery unemployment isn’t nor should it be the only option for individuals. CNN Money recently reported 2014 was the best year of job growth since 1999 in the United States, with 200,000 jobs being added in all but two months. “American businesses are on a hiring binge,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. “It clearly suggests the economy is on a much stronger growth track than the first four years of recovery.”

More and more jobs will continue to sprout up nationally as businesses expand and Baby Boomers exit the job market. In turn,  unemployment levels continue drop year by year. The Idaho Department of Labor recently reported Idaho’s unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, the lowest it has been in seven years.

There are still individuals collecting unemployment, but it doesn’t seem logical in a time of job growth and low unemployment. To be fair, even though the job market is growing wage increases have been slow to follow. While jobs are available, it may not mean that an individual’s skill set, experience and wage preference are a match for those jobs.

I have heard from more than a few people over the years that their unemployment benefits pay them more than jobs they could get hired for – so there is no incentive to get an actual job. Keep in mind that people on unemployment are required to seek and apply for jobs in their local labor market. The Idaho Department of Labor has beefed up its efforts making sure those collecting benefits are fulfilling these requirements. It is garnishing wages and criminally prosecuting those who do not adhere to state unemployment regulations.

As the department continues to streamline operations and efficiencies, I would anticipate a rise in these cases over time.  In turn, this should reassure businesses that seasonal sales associates will collect only what they should and encourage individuals to apply for the thousands of jobs available on the market today.

Monica Bitrick is CEO of Bitrick Consulting Group and a member of the Square One business development network.

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