Walsh, Republicans spar over pace of job growth, unemployment benefits

Republicans blamed jobless benefits for making it more appealing to stay home than to return to work

Walsh said restaurants are probably closed permanently because of the pandemic, not because they can't find workers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Walsh said restaurants are probably closed permanently because of the pandemic, not because they can't find workers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 9, 2021 at 3:58pm

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on Wednesday defended enhanced unemployment benefits against attacks from House Republicans, who said overly generous benefits have slowed job growth.

Industries that remain shuttered, lingering health fears and difficulty finding child care are likely driving reluctance to return to work, not unemployment benefits, Walsh said at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing. 

“To regenerate and restart our economy, it’s going to take simply more than flipping a switch,” he said. “We’re seeing Americans every day, more and more go back to work.”

The U.S. economy added 559,000 jobs in May and 278,000 in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falling short of expectations from economists. Republicans say the problem is that unemployment benefits are discouraging workers from returning to work even as many employers complain that they can't fill positions. 

Twenty-five states are withdrawing early from enhanced federal unemployment benefits provided through relief legislation passed in March, saying the withdrawal will provide an incentive to take a job. 

The committee's ranking member, Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and other Republicans blamed overly generous benefits for making it more appealing to stay home than to return to work. 

“Democrats wound up creating an incentive for healthy Americans to stay home,” Foxx said. “It is not our constituents’ fault. They're merely taking the better deal. Eight-hour shifts are pointless when one can collect a perversely large unemployment check from the government.”

Walsh defended the economy’s performance, saying the addition of jobs in the last four months, in particular gains in the hospitality industry, are encouraging signs. 

He rejected a claim by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., that restaurants in the congressman’s district closed permanently because they couldn’t find “workers to open their doors and operate the restaurants.”

“I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the restaurants in this country that have closed wasn't due to finding workers. It was due to the pandemic,” Walsh said, adding that restaurants lost customers and couldn't cover their overhead costs.

Walsh said a reluctance to return to work is more likely driven by vaccination rates. 

“People still haven't been fully vaccinated. I think this is adding to peoples’ concern of going back to work. I think people are concerned about their health,” Walsh said. “I do not feel that the $300 bonus is keeping people out of work.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said high child care costs have also kept parents at home. 

“I've had so many conversations with people who say, I want to go back to work, but I don't have affordable child care," Bonamici said. "So we need to solve that issue.”