LINCOLN, Neb. — Even in normal times Nebraska has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, with fewer than two million people and plenty of jobs to go around. But with some workers slow to return to work after COVID-19 shutdowns, the state has hit new depths, recording the country’s lowest-ever state unemployment rate of 1.8% in November.
Now Gov. Pete Ricketts, who frequently expounds on the value of work, is confronting an intriguing question: Can a governor force citizens to work, even if they apparently aren’t eager or able to do so?
Ricketts is certainly trying every option imaginable to get Nebraskans into jobs, including requiring people to confer with job coaches before seeking unemployment benefits.
“There’s going to be a lot of different things we’re going to have to do to reach each individual and, if they’re not working for whatever reason, get them back into the workforce,” Ricketts said recently.
Unemployment rates are low in many places, and as the national rate fell to 4.2%, officials across the country are struggling to convince people who have stopped looking for work to seek jobs.
A full work force is needed to keep businesses functioning and support local economies, but it’s hard to overstate the difficulty of uprooting people who are caring for family members, exploring other life options or who just want to take a break.
Ricketts is determined to try with policies that make it more trouble to stay home.
“Jobs help create great financial independence for Nebraskans and their families, giving them the dignity to achieve their dreams,” said the two-term Republican governor, who is part of the Ricketts family, whose estimated $4.5 billion in wealth originated with the creation of the online brokerage Ameritrade.
Ricketts’ first move was to require people seeking unemployment benefits to meet with a job coach, discuss specific employment goals and enroll in an “individualized reemployment plan.” The state added tougher requirements for maintaining benefits and for contacting employers to apply for openings.
Nebraska also was one of the first to end supplemental federal assistance for workers hit by the pandemic.
Nebraska has about 49,000 job openings listed on a state website and 19,000 working-age residents who are not working. About 4,300 people are receiving unemployment benefits.
Among the unemployed is Sonja Redding, an Omaha mother whose daughter and son have autism and methylmalonic acidemia, a rare autoimmune disease that makes them exceptionally vulnerable to viruses.
Redding previously worked as a reseller and ran her own booth at a flea market but stopped after the pandemic hit. She has survived on federal stimulus money, unemployment, Social Security income and her own savings, but lately has reduced her spending “to a bare minimum” so she can stay home with her children.