Opinion: Time for Virginia to reject federal COVID-19 unemployment benefits

May 29, 2021


After 15 months of varying levels of shutdown and mandated restrictions on our businesses, our economy is ready to boom once again, and we’re all ready to get back to living a normal life heading into the summer. That obviously includes reconnecting with friends and family at restaurants and bars and heading to the beach or mountains for well-deserved breaks and missed celebrations of life’s events.

Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO Bryan K. Stephens
Hampton Roads Chamber President and CEO Bryan K. Stephens (Helen’s Place Photography 757-229-1702/Courtesy of Hampton Roads Chamber)

Many people have built up rainy-day funds that they are ready to spend, patronizing those businesses (such as restaurants, theme parks and hotels) that had to scrape by and adapt to the shutdowns and restrictions just to survive. Now with the pandemic subsiding, they are ready to open to full capacity.

Bob McKenna
Bob McKenna (Courtesy photo)

So we should all be looking forward to a great summer filled with fun, travel, celebrations, amazing food and great fellowship, right? Whoa, not so fast! Restaurants, bars, hotels, entertainment venues and amusement parks (among many other retail-type businesses) are struggling mightily right now to find enough employees to keep their doors open under the COVID-19 restrictions, much less to open to full capacity.

We have a unique and counter-intuitive situation where unemployment is relatively high, yet there is also a labor shortage. Job fairs are empty, job interviews are missed, and “we’re hiring” signs are in the window of just about every restaurant and retail business in town. Restaurants such as McDonald’s offer signing bonuses and cash just to get people to show up for interviews. And, still, they are desperate to hire more.

How can this be? Here’s the problem: the federal government, through the best of intentions, is providing enhanced federal unemployment benefits to the tune of $300 per week extra. So, essentially, not working is being subsidized. This cannot continue if we are going to have a thriving summer and beyond.

After spending trillions of dollars on pandemic relief, we can no longer afford to pay people to stay at home. Mask mandates are going away, pandemic restrictions are being loosened or eliminated, and the vaccine is widely available. It’s time to encourage people to get back to work and back to normal, not stay at home and do nothing. Numerous states have already decided to opt-out of this extra money. Those states also see their unemployment levels shrink back to pre-pandemic numbers and businesses opening to full capacity.

Numerous regional organizations are trying to solve this problem with training programs and employment assistance. For instance, the Hampton Roads Workforce Council provides tremendous support for job seekers. So even for those individuals who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and feel they are unqualified to seek other employment, there are plenty of job training opportunities and assistance available in Hampton Roads. Reach out to them. Get the training and assistance you need. Get employed.

Gov, Ralph Northam can help too. It’s time for the commonwealth to say “no thanks” to the federal government and opt out of further federal unemployment compensation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the benefit is scheduled to run out on Sept. 1, but that’s too late for us, especially for those in the restaurant, lodging and tourism industries.

The summer of 2021 should be a memorable, less stressful one in Hampton Roads, one in which our businesses experience a tremendous recovery from the pain of last summer. However, we need our businesses to be fully up and running for that to happen. And for them to be fully up and running, they need employees.

Let’s ensure all who visit Hampton Roads this summer know we are open for business.

Bryan K. Stephens is president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. Bob McKenna is president and CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.