Kansas business leaders, governor meet amid push to end extra unemployment benefits

Gov. Laura Kelly, pictured here after signing an education funding bill on May 24, met with state business leaders to address concerns that supplemental federal unemployment insurance payments were hindering the workforce. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A group of business leaders from across Kansas met Tuesday with Gov. Laura Kelly, pushing the Democratic governor to change her stance on supplemental unemployment insurance offered during the pandemic.

As businesses across the state look to return to pre-pandemic routines and fill vacancies, many are hoping Kelly will end Kansas’ participation in the American Rescue Plan Act’s unemployment boost. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce has argued the $300 boost per week to state payments was hindering businesses ’ ability to fill job openings.

On the final day of the legislative session last week, the Legislature also sent Kelly a message by passing a resolution calling on her to cut off federal unemployment aid immediately. The resolution noted several other states have taken similar action.

However, Kelly has shown no inclination to doing so, pointing to longstanding factors that could be contributing to workforce shortages.

“Since the start of the pandemic, I have asked for data and input from experts and stakeholders before making significant policy decisions,” Kelly said. “Today’s discussion is the first of several I will hold to determine the best course of action — for businesses and for families — to reduce our state’s workforce shortages. I remain committed to supporting our businesses and workers to rebuild a healthier, stronger economy following COVID-19.”

Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma are among the 24 states that will end their participation in the $300 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance checks before they are set to expire September 6. Oklahoma and Colorado are considering offering a one-time bonus for people who return to work.

The Kansas Chamber estimated there are more than 58,000 job openings across Kansas right now.

A recent report from the National Federation for Independent Businesses showed 44% of businesses had openings they were unable to fill, with 31% reporting they had few qualified applicants and 23% reporting they had no applicants.

“Kansas employers shared firsthand with Governor Kelly their current struggles to fill open positions,” said Natalie Bright, executive director for the Kansas State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Workforce shortages are at a critical point in Kansas, and our employers look forward to partnering with her administration to get Kansans retrained and motivated to return to work.”

In addition to hearing business concerns regarding unemployment, Kelly and the group discussed pre-pandemic factors possibly impacting workforce shortages including low wages, socially regressive policies, health care and child care.

A Brookings Institute report Kelly cited shows some areas of Kansas have large shares of workers who rely on child care and school for child care. In Manhattan, for example, 27% of workers rely on some form of child care to have the ability to work, according to the report.

The governor noted the state unemployment rate in April was close to pre-pandemic levels at 3.5%. Currently, 33,000 people are receiving boosted benefits in Kansas, which is less than the 58,000 job openings. That means there would still be job vacancies should the benefits end and everyone immediately entered the workforce.

Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber, said COVID-19 unemployment boosts served a purpose earlier in the pandemic but were now a hindrance. He restated that unemployment benefits are not the only barrier but cutting the state’s involvement would surely spur some growth in the workforce.

“Kansas has the pandemic under control, and there are ample vaccines available,” Cobb said. “While our state’s economy is on the rebound, many employers are struggling to find workers. It is one thing for businesses to compete with one another for workers. It is entirely different for businesses to compete with the government.”