SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has decided to end the state's participation in a federal $300-per-week COVID-19 pandemic unemployment program.
Utah will discontinue the pandemic unemployment benefit on June 26, according to a Wednesday news release from Cox's office. Other pandemic-related federal unemployment will also end on that date in addition to the $300 weekly stimulus, the release said.
The governor touted Utah's recent job growth and a low unemployment rate as reasons for ending the state's participation.
"This is the natural next step in getting the state and people's lives back to normal," Cox said in the release. "I believe in the value of work. With the nation's lowest unemployment rate at 2.9% and plenty of good-paying jobs available today, it makes sense to transition away from these extra benefits that were never intended to be permanent. The market should not be competing with government for workers."
The Utah Department of Workforce Services currently lists about 50,000 job openings in the state, the news release said. Another job listings aggregator website lists 72,000 openings, Cox's office said.
The stimulus program currently benefits about 28,000 Utahns, and about $12.4 million is paid out in the state each week through the program, according to the governor's office. Of the 28,000, about 11,000 are receiving extended pandemic benefits through the federal government, about 2,500 are receiving pandemic unemployment assistance, and 200 are receiving mixed-earner unemployment compensation.
The final payments to those Utahns who are eligible for those programs will be made between June 27 and July 3, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. After that, Utahns will remain eligible for any unemployment benefits they qualify for under pre-pandemic criteria, the agency said.
Other assistance, such as rent, utility, food and medical assistance, will still be available after June 26, Cox's office said. Utah's Learn and Work program also helps job seekers get more training and find better employment, and another $15 million is being allocated to that program in the coming weeks, the news release said. More information is available at jobs.utah.gov.
"As employers compete for workers, we are ready to help those local businesses recruit and hire employees," Casey Cameron, executive director of the Department of Workforce Services, added in the release. "For job seekers, we can provide career coaching, education assistance, job search help and more, either online or in-person at an employment center. For many workers, this transition can be a great time to gain additional skills and open doors to new opportunities."
Cox is the latest of a growing number of Republican governors rejecting increased unemployment benefits meant to help Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, GOP governors of Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee announced their states would opt out of the programs. Governors from Alabama, Mississippi and North Dakota made similar announcements Monday, joining Montana, South Carolina and Arkansas, where officials announced their move away from the program by the end of June.
That's even though President Joe Biden has argued the enhanced federal benefits aren't why people aren't going back to work.
"The line has been because of the generous unemployment benefits, that it's a major factor in labor shortages. Americans want to work. Americans want to work." Biden said on Monday, CBS News reported. "I think the people claiming Americans won't work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people."
The federal benefits have been allocated through September.
The Utah Democratic Party blasted Cox's decision on Wednesday morning.
"Gov. Cox is failing Utah and our neighbors by ending pandemic unemployment benefits," the party tweeted. "COVID-19 is far from over, and treating it like it is will only exacerbate it."
Progressive advocacy group Alliance for a Better Utah also condemned the decision. The group's Executive Director Chase Thomas pointed out that for some receiving the stimulus, the benefits were based on earning Utah's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. For tipped workers, the minimum wage is an "abysmal" $2.13 per hour, Thomas added.
"Time will tell whether this move by the Governor is premature. But when it comes to our broken unemployment system or the insufficient minimum wage in our state, we cannot wait. Our leaders must act now to uphold the dignity of all people, including workers and those in need of work," Thomas said in the statement.
At $7.25 per hour, a 40-hour workweek would amount to just $290 per week before taxes.
One of Utah's top business advocates applauded the move, however.
"All across Utah, in a variety of industries, we are seeing the significant need for new employees," Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, said in the release. "The challenge our economy currently faces is not the scarcity of well-paying jobs, but the lack of workers."
Utah's U.S. Senate delegation also supported ending the benefits.
"This is an important step forward," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted Wednesday.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also added his support on social media.
"Increased unemployment benefits are leaving employers struggling to staff up. I applaud (Cox) for this decision—it's time we reopen our economy," Romney tweeted.
Tiffany Young, a Salt Lake City resident who was receiving the $300 benefit during the pandemic until she found work in early April, said the stimulus was "essential."
Young, 50, holds a master's degree in public policy and has decades of experience as a business management consultant, but her work ended abruptly when the pandemic hit, she said. The added unemployment benefits helped as her time normally spent working was taken up running errands for her elderly parents, who could not go out due to the risks of COVID-19, she said.
Even so, through unemployment benefits Young earned only about 80% of what she made before the pandemic, even with the added $300 per week, Young said.
"Cox's decision to turn down federal money already designated through September for unemployment benefits is short-sighted and problematic," she told KSL.com. "Older workers and workers who are differently abled as well as those without childcare or elder care support will all suffer."
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Deseret News