Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he and the Republican-led Legislature may have erred in agreeing to prolong unemployment benefits for people out of work for more than a year and a half.
“I do still believe that we made a mistake in extending unemployment compensation benefits,” Ramsey said Thursday, based on anecdotes from employers who say they struggle to hire unemployed workers who have weeks of unemployment still coming in. “A fine line is when this is a benefit and when this has become a lifestyle.”
In the waning days of the legislative session, Capitol Hill leaders agreed to extend federal unemployment benefits to job seekers by 20 weeks, allowing individuals to continue getting paid for a total of 99 weeks, or almost two years. Ramsey was initially against the expansion, but ultimately voted for it and the measure subsequently passed, 95-43-1.
Tennessee’s unemployment rate has been stuck at 9.8 percent for two months, and 106,000 people are on the state’s unemployment rolls. Of those, 11,800 have been receiving benefits for 79 weeks or more.
The cost of the program weighs mostly on federal taxpayers with about $3.1 million from state and local governments reimbursing employers. The extensions will expire at the end of the year unless Congress and the president decide to renew the program.
While acknowledging that some people may indeed be abusing the system, the state shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader. He contends the system still benefits people legitimately in need who are dutifully seeking employment.
In no way did state government “make a mistake” by extending those employment benefits, Fitzhugh said.
“There’s no question in my mind there are people out there who can’t find work, and they can’t,” Fitzhugh added. “Is somebody scheming the system? Maybe so. … In any system there are those that take advantage of it.”
Chip Forrester, the Tennessee Democratic Party chairman, on Friday accused Republicans of “mocking” people who have lost their jobs.
“We don’t have a shortage of work ethic in Tennessee. We have a shortage of work,” Forrester said in a press release.
A band of House Republicans met this week with small business owners to brainstorm ideas for making the state a better place to run a business. The topic of unemployment benefits came up there, too — and some business owners said they’re encountering instances of people refusing work in favor of keeping the stream of government checks coming in.
“There really are an awful lot of people out there that are just trying so hard to work,” said Rep. Steve McManus, R-Cordova. “Yet today it was so interesting that we heard that people are turning work down when they’re unemployed.”
Democrats are also seeking solutions to the state’s high unemployment rate and are planning a jobs tour later this month.