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Throughout the pandemic, there was a push by conservatives to end additional federal benefits for low-wage employees. The federal government provided generous unemployment and other federal benefits during the difficult months of the pandemic when many low-wage employees were let go. For millions of Americans, those additional benefits provided hundreds of dollars per week as a lifeline. Those benefits ended at the federal level on September 6th, 2021. And in many Republican states, benefits had ended months earlier.

Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott famously defended his decision to cut the benefits by saying “It is time for Americans to get back to work.”

Republicans had predicted that cutting benefits would push millions of Americans back to work. Specifically, Republicans were worried about employers who needed low-wage labor. If low-wage employees had access to federal assistance through unemployment and other benefits, they argued, those workers would decide they didn’t need their jobs anymore. Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott famously defended his decision to cut the benefits by saying “It is time for Americans to get back to work.” 

But long after government benefits have been cut, millions of low-wage employees have refused to come back to work. Republicans and small business owners have been frustrated by the resilience of former employees who decided they no longer wanted to work for low wages. The result has been that employers have had to increase pay to compete for these workers. There are still millions of openings across the country, and it is clear that ending federal benefits alone wasn’t enough to compel people to fill them.

The reality is that the pandemic was one of the most disruptive events in Americans’ lives. But that disruption also presented an opportunity. It gave Americans who were tired of working for their boss or dealing with abusive customers the opportunity to rethink how they wanted to live. Many younger Americans moved back in with their parents. Some decided to move in with friends or family. More than 7 million households moved to a different county during 2020. With more options for jobs, new living arrangements, and little desire to deal with poor working conditions, workers had more negotiation power than ever. 

Susan Houseman, a research director at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, argued that ending the benefits didn’t have the effect many conservatives had hoped for. “There’s not early evidence [federal benefits] were a big constraint [on jobs],” she said. The truth is that the pandemic was a game-changer. It shifted the negotiating power away from management and towards labor, allowing low-wage employees to pick where and how they wanted to work, some for the first time in their lives. Cutting benefits alone won’t compel these Americans back to work. And now management will have to compete to earn their labor.

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.