Jobs report highlights continued barriers to Mainers returning to work

Today, the Maine Department of Labor released data showing a modest decline in jobs, further evidence that the September 4 expiration of supplemental unemployment support for tens of thousands of Mainers has not meaningfully boosted employment. For the month of September, there were 3,000 fewer nonfarm payroll jobs than in August and 6,500 fewer than in July. The unemployment and labor force participation rates were little changed.

These numbers are consistent with September data for national jobs and from the 26 states that ended supplemental insurance earlier, which showed that removing unemployment support had very little impact on labor force participation. Maine Department of Labor data show that between August 12 and September 12, total state and federal unemployment claims fell by just under 21,000.

Barriers to returning to work

Looking beyond federal unemployment supports, the Maine Center for Economic Policy identifies three other factors impeding the return of workers to the labor force — a lack of reliable child care, concern about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and a scarcity of fitting jobs with good pay and benefits. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey found that nearly 34,000 adults in Maine experienced a child care disruption for kids under the age of 5 in the past four weeks. As a result, many parents and caregivers had to cut work hours and more than 14,000 were unable to work at all — with some having to take unpaid leave — because they were caring for children not in school or day care.

A July survey conducted by Maine Department of Labor (DOL) confirmed the lack of child care as a major barrier to returning to work, with 20 percent of female respondents citing this factor as a reason. That conclusion aligns with results of a recent national poll that found one in five households with children (20 percent) had serious problems securing childcare in recent months when adults needed to work. That figure rose to more than one in four (27 percent) for households whose annual income is below $50,000.

Among other primary barriers to returning to work highlighted in the July Maine DOL survey, a significant number of respondents noted insufficient wages (29 percent), lack of benefits (15 percent), unpredictable schedule (13 percent), and lack of long-term positions (11 percent). The most recent Household Pulse Survey found more than 18,000 Maine residents were not working because they were sick with COVID-19 or caring for someone with COVID-19; and another 3,500 were not working due to concern about getting or spreading the virus.

Based on the evidence, the most effective ways to get Mainers back to work include controlling the spread of COVID-19, expanding child care and other social infrastructure supports, and improving job quality. Taking benefits away from job seekers, however, has not proven effective and will do more harm than good over time.