ORLANDO, Fla. — At least four state governors are expected to shut off extended federal unemployment benefits in efforts to address worker shortages.

What You Need To Know

  •  In an effort to address the current labor shortage, some governors are considering ending federal unemployment benefits

  •  Federal unemployment benefits provide $300 per week on top of state benefits

  • Experts say there are multiple reasons businesses might be having trouble filling open positions right now

Governors of Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi and South Carolina announced plans to end distributing the federal benefits that provided up to $300 per week, in addition to state benefits.

When asked if he would consider a similar move, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not respond. 

A spokesman for Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Spectrum News: “The Department continues to research and monitor whether the state should continue participating in all federal unemployment programs that were implemented to provide additional relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department is focused on acting in the best interests of all Floridians and will provide more information as it becomes available.”

DeSantis said in April that he was against extending unemployment benefits, when asked about legislative proposals.

Congress passed legislation in early 2021 to extend an additional $300 in weekly benefits to eligible individuals through September.

States are now moving to end distribution of the extra benefits as business owners say the incentive is hurting their efforts to fill job openings.

“Although we’re allowed to operate at 100% capacity in Florida, we can’t find staff,” Carol Dover, President/CEO of Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said while testifying virtually April 13 in front of a U.S. Senate hearing on the pandemic’s impact on tourism. “Simply put, we’re competing with state and federal unemployment benefits. Workers tell us that they make too much money on unemployment to return to work, so businesses are forced to limit capacity, shorten their hours without adequate staff to serve guests.”

Restaurant and hotel owners across Central Florida have told Spectrum News in recent weeks that they too are struggling to fill job openings. Some are limiting hours or having the few employees they have pick up the burden.

Dover told U.S. Senators that Florida is facing a "historic workforce challenge" within a tourism and hospitality industry that’s estimated to have lost more than $500 billion.

“Half of the U.S. hotel rooms are projected to remain empty this year, and hotel employment will not come back until at least 2023,” Dover said. “Business travel, the single largest source of hotel revenue, will remain down 85%.”

FRLA estimates there were more than 8 million restaurant employees laid off or furloughed in the U.S. — 600,000 of those were in Florida.

A spokeswoman for Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association told Spectrum News that the hiring challenges are seen not just in front line roles, but even within management and in some jobs paying upwards of $40 to $50 per hour.

Critics say abruptly shutting off additional benefits is shortsighted.

“It’s pure supply and demand economics,” said Paul Cox, President of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 631. “I don’t know a single Floridian who wants to collect unemployment. They want to get back to work and do things they enjoy.”

The union represents thousands of stage and production technicians across Central Florida, including more than 1,000 employed at Walt Disney World.

Suddenly cutting off benefits, Cox said, would hurt more than 700 union members who remain on furlough with the expectation that they will be recalled to their previous roles within the coming months. Cutting off their benefits could create financial instability for them, and others.

Why are businesses struggling to fill positions?

There are mixed theories on why businesses may struggle to fill job openings.

In addition to thousands of people remaining on furlough, Cox says he is aware of numerous families who were forced to pack up their homes and move elsewhere. On top of that, Central Florida continues to have a widespread wage and affordable housing crisis.

“When we start talking about crafts, like the ones I represent, those workers are highly specialized, often with bachelor's degree, if not master's,” Cox said. “They’ve spent their entire careers and many decades, and have skills and training. It is a niche craft. If those craft leave tomorrow, there’s a domino effect.”

Cox argues instability within Florida’s specialized and relied-upon industries ripples from one sector to the next, financially impacting each.

The pandemic also persuaded many to "upskill" — to learn new trades so they can leave historically lower-wage jobs behind.

CareerSource Central Florida alone supported more than 5,000 people through career training, including truck drivers, EMTs, and electricians. CareerSource officials said jobs are growing within health care, IT and finance, and trade and logistics.

Another changing dynamic is that it’s becoming more of a job-seeker’s market, allowing them to be more selective.

“Workers are still having to looking for jobs,” Cox said. “To say that’s not what’s going on and these workers are lazy and sitting home in some kind of weird throwback to a welfare queen argument of the 1980s is pretty disingenuous. I would argue workers don’t want to work for substandard wages employers want to pay.”

It’s important to note that individuals must be available and willing to work in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

“Anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” President Joe Biden said Monday. “There are a few COVID-related exceptions so people aren’t forced to choose between basic safety and a paycheck, but otherwise that’s the law.”

While the latest job numbers were not as robust as the White House had hoped, the Biden Administration did admit there remain barriers preventing some from returning to the job market.

Labor advocates point out that despite the additional unemployment benefits, job growth and the number of those returning to work are still growing. They add decisions about employment stretch beyond just dollars, but include insurance, retirement and other benefits.