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.
“I would love to get back to work,” she said. “I’m a normal parent and would like to have time away from my kids sometimes, but this is what we’ve got to do right now. It’s definitely draining.”
Redding said employers she’s talked to want her to come into the office.
Other reasons some people aren’t working include concerns about being infected with the coronavirus, said Dave Swenson, a economics professor at Iowa State University. Burnout is another factor, particularly among health care workers and teachers.
Swenson questions the effectiveness of Ricketts’ efforts because most people without jobs aren’t getting jobless aid, he said.
Still, there is no question that Nebraska businesses are hurting for workers.
“It’s their No. 1 challenge, their No. 2 challenge and their No. 3 challenge,” said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In a chamber survey, more than 90% of chamber members identified worker shortages as their biggest concern.