HELENA — In May, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration announced a measure seeking to encourage Montanans to reenter the labor force: establishing $1,200 return-to-work bonuses for people who were on unemployment but took a job and maintained it at least four weeks. Now, two months after that announcement, we are getting the first indication of how many people are using the new bonus system.
MTN asked the Montana Department of Labor and Industry for initial statistics on the program, and they provided numbers as of last Friday, July 9:
· The department has received 3,201 applications for return-to-work payments.
· 21 applications have been approved.
· 29 applications have been rejected. DLI says, at this time, there’s no data available on why those applicants didn’t qualify.
· A total of $21,600 has been disbursed – enough for 18 $1,200 payments.
· Most of the applications are still being processed.
The return-to-work bonuses were available to anyone receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4. The state estimated that about 22,000 people would be eligible.
Employers across the state have said they are having a hard time finding workers, with some having to. cut operating hours. The bonus program is intended to give Montanans an incentive to get back into the workforce – in conjunction with the state’s decision to phase out additional pandemic-related benefits that had been added to the unemployment insurance system.
The changes to UI took effect June 27:
· People who exhausted their regular UI benefits but still received them through a federal pandemic-related extension are no longer eligible for them.
· The state has stopped issuing supplemental $300 weekly payments to unemployment claimants.
· Montana is no longer participating in the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provided benefits to the self-employed, underemployed, independent contractors, and people who couldn’t work due to health or COVID-related reasons.
· The state ended $100 supplemental payments to unemployment claimants who had self-employment income as well as traditional W-2 income.
· Montana also reinstated rules that people claiming unemployment must be able to work and actively seeking a job. Those rules had been temporarily suspended during the pandemic.
State Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, told MTN he didn’t expect many applications for the return-to-work bonuses until after the end of extended benefits. Despite that, he said the state has already seen a significant decrease in the number of unemployment claims.
“Given we’re only two weeks into the uptake program, it seems to be working,” Jones said. “A bunch of Montanans went back to work, 20% of those who went back to work have already applied for the bonus program, the others have another six months or so to apply for it.”
State Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, the House minority leader, said she hopes to see the applications for the bonus program processed more quickly. She’s also concerned the steps the state has taken don’t address all of the issues keeping people out of the labor force.
“Access to affordable and consistent child care, to a consistent schedule that works for people and their families, and access to affordable housing are three major barriers to workforce development and meeting our workforce needs in the state of Montana,” said Abbott. “Eliminating the enhanced unemployment benefits, we thought, was a rash decision.”
DLI leaders say they plan to shift resources around to get return-to-work payments processed faster. They also expect to have updated numbers on the program by the end of this week.
Montana’s unemployment rate in May was just 3.6%. The seasonally adjusted labor force had grown from the previous month, but remained lower than it had been for much of 2020.