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Nation & World

Gov. Hutchinson On States Opting Out Of Unemployment Relief

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A number of Republican-led states have announced that they will opt out early from expanded unemployment benefits. The federal program grants an additional $300 per week to Americans who are out of work during the pandemic. It's slated to end in September, but governors of Montana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas will opt out earlier. They hope this will incentivize people to return to work. To talk about his administration's decision, we're joined now by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Welcome.

ASA HUTCHINSON: Thank you. It's great to be with you today.

CHANG: Great to have you with us. I saw that you wrote a letter where you called for an end to the program, and you said that there are more than 40,000 jobs that need to be filled in Arkansas. Tell me what leads you to believe that ending this supplemental benefit will, in fact, fill those jobs.

HUTCHINSON: Well, I mean, first, we don't need to pay people to stay at home when employers are begging for workers. That's the fundamental point. And what we see - employers have job openings at every level, and they have people who come in for an appointment but don't show up for the interview. They recite the fact that they can make more money because they have the assistance at home.

And so there is a correlation between the extra compensation that we're paying over and above usual unemployment benefits - the extra compensation, which is calling on people to stay at home rather than getting out and getting a job. We'll see whether there is a difference that's made, but fundamentally it is the right thing to do because people want to work. And this encourages them to move out and return to employment...

CHANG: But...

HUTCHINSON: ...That they had before.

CHANG: If I may, there is no clear evidence that unemployment benefits are the main reason people are not going back to work. It may be a factor, but what about wages, for example? A lot of the businesses that are struggling to find workers right now are ones that generally pay less. Maybe wages need to increase.

HUTCHINSON: Well, actually, it's across the board. People at every - employers at every level, whether it's a high-end person or whether it is an entry-level job, they are crying for people to fill those positions. And so this is not going to solve every issue, but it's going to help encourage more people to move into the workforce, and that's the point of it. And, again, you know, whether we see a tremendous movement in the workforce or not, this is, to me, a fundamental principle of individual responsibility. And what Americans and Arkansans are about is that we don't get paid when you're able-bodied for waiting at home when there are jobs to fill. And...

CHANG: Well, let's talk about individual responsibility. There may be people who don't want to go back to work because they're worried about getting COVID. You lifted statewide mask requirements at the end of March. What about that factor?

HUTCHINSON: Let's get a vaccination. That's what we're encouraging as well. There was a time...

CHANG: Sure. But vaccination rates in Arkansas are relatively low, and they're falling right now. What are you going to do to make vaccines more available and to encourage people to get them?

HUTCHINSON: They're available for everyone. We have a surplus of vaccines. We're encouraging everyone to get it. They're in every county. Employers are offering it. And so vaccine and - that is not a reason not to go to work because it is available. It is available throughout Arkansas, and I think you can say that's nationwide as well. So that, to me, is not a reason. You can say that, well, maybe they need child care. Well, if they need assistance in getting a job, we'll provide that, too. If they need assistance in child care, we have plenty of resources to provide assistance for essential workers and low-income workers. So we're there to help.

CHANG: Can you be specific? Can you be specific? What are you planning to put in place to help people get more child care so they can go back to work?

HUTCHINSON: Well, first of all, we're 100% open in our child care facilities. We had - we have 1,915 child care facilities that are open and ready to receive children. We had 16 million that is unspent from the original CARES Act. We have 178 million that's unspent from the December allocation of money. And we have more money coming in for child care. So there's more than enough to meet that need, and some of that's going unclaimed. But that money is available for them.

CHANG: You know, I'm listening to you speak, governor, and I'm wondering, as we're talking about how you think unemployment benefits may be the reason people are not going back to work, do you run the risk of implying that your constituents don't want to work?

HUTCHINSON: No, they do want to work. And you're right. I want to make sure there's a good message out there that Arkansans want to work. People want to work. It's fundamental to us. But there's also the human nature side of it. And you get comfortable through this pandemic of staying at home, and you're getting compensated for it. And now you're getting extra compensating for it. Let's just end the extra compensation, and hopefully that will have an impact. People in Arkansas want to work, and we want to give them that opportunity.

CHANG: That is Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. SCRUFF'S "MIDNIGHT FEAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.