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President Biden Says Those Who Turn Down Suitable Jobs May Lose Unemployment Aid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden had a blunt message today for the more than 16 million Americans who are out of work and getting help from the government.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you're receiving unemployment benefits and you're offered a suitable job, you can't refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits.

KELLY: Now, Biden says he does not think that this is a widespread problem, but he is under political pressure from those who argue that relatively generous jobless benefits are discouraging people from looking for work.

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BIDEN: I think the people who claim Americans won't work, even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people. So we'll insist that the law is followed with respect to benefits, but we're not going to turn our backs on our fellow Americans.

KELLY: All right, NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So Biden says he doesn't think this is a huge problem. Why is he out talking about it today?

HORSLEY: Some employers have been grousing for a while that they can't find enough workers at the wages they want to pay, and they say the extra $300 a week in pandemic unemployment benefits are at least partly to blame. Those complaints got a lot louder after Friday's disappointing jobs report, showing far fewer jobs added last month than a lot of people were expecting. Republicans have piled on. The Chamber of Commerce called for an end to the benefits. Several states have announced plans to cut the benefits on their own next month, so the president's trying to navigate all this, on the one hand defending the benefits and on the - at the same time saying people could lose the extra money if they turn down suitable work. The administration is also trying to address other factors that might be keeping workers on the sidelines, helping to subsidize child care, for example, and, of course, getting more people vaccinated, which should help to address workers' fear of contracting COVID on the job.

KELLY: And I want to circle you back to something we heard Biden say just there. He said we'll insist the law is followed. What is the law? Can you turn down a job and still get unemployment?

HORSLEY: Biden's warning to workers about losing benefits is basically just stating the existing law, but enforcement of that law has varied over the course of the pandemic. For example, people who receive unemployment usually have to look for work and document that job search. But that requirement was relaxed for much of the last year because the government didn't want people out pounding the pavement. You know, when the pandemic was raging, they wanted the people to stay home.

KELLY: Sure.

HORSLEY: Andrew Stettner, who is an unemployment expert at The Century Foundation, says that is changing now as the public health outlook has improved.

ANDREW STETTNER: You're seeing additional states announce the reinstatement of work search now that the vaccine program has moved forward and their economies are reopening.

HORSLEY: Another example, Mary Louise - when President Biden first came into office, he signed an order making it clear workers could turn down a job that might jeopardize their health without losing unemployment benefits. But the definition of a job that puts someone's health in jeopardy is evolving as the threat of the pandemic changes.

KELLY: So many complications there - it sounds like we will be hearing this debate play out over the next few months. Bottom line - what evidence will people on both sides of this marshal to support the point the benefits are or are not keeping people out of the workforce?

HORSLEY: The Chamber of Commerce estimates about 1 in 4 unemployed workers is getting more in unemployment than they did when they were working, so it's not unreasonable to think some people would rather not go back to work. But it doesn't seem to be that simple. For example, lots of people went back to work last summer, even though the government was paying twice as much in extra jobless benefits at that time. Benefits in Alabama are more generous than those in Louisiana, but more people have gone back to work in Alabama, so the picture is really complicated. And finally, worker advocates say if extra benefits do give workers a little more breathing room, a little more time to wait for the right job to go back to, well, that, they say, is a good thing not a bad thing.

KELLY: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIBOU STATE AND KHRUANGBIN'S "FEEL GOOD (KHRUANGBIN'S A WELL NICE VERSION)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.