State will soon notify eligible people about Montana's "return-to-work" program

Unemployment program
Posted at 6:26 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-22 12:55:46-04

HELENA — As unemployment falls, Montana businesses continue to struggle to find workers. Earlier this month, the Governor's Office announced plans to opt out of federal pandemic unemployment assistance in June, and give workers receiving unemployment a one-time bonus for securing employment.

The owner of Bert & Ernie's in Helena says hiring has been a challenge all year. “I think it's going to be a challenge to get people to think about coming back to work after being on unemployment for so long,” says DeWolf.

It's a problem a new program by the Gianforte administration hopes to ease with a program to incentivize workers who have been receiving unemployment to return to work.

Under the plan, the state will opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefits on June 27th. People who are receiving pandemic-related unemployment, including people who exhausted traditional unemployment, the self-employed, independent contractors, and people unable to work due to health or COVID affected reasons, will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

Montana was the first state to withdraw from the program; since then, according to CNBC, at least 15 states have followed suit, including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The extra federal payments will expire nation-wide on Monday, September 6th.

To further incentivize people to find work, anyone receiving unemployment in Montana as of May 4th is eligible for $1,200 - if they find a job and complete four paid weeks of work.

“Generally, our biggest concern is just the overall number of jobs that we have and the overall number of what we know to be the available labor force,” says Scott Eychner. He is the Workforce Services Administrator for the Dept. of Labor and Industry. “The number of jobs continues to grow and we just have enough people to fill them. So this program, other things that will come through the ARPA funds, all those are intended to try and address all of that situation, just a general workforce shortage."

The state will reach out to the estimated 22,000 people eligible and guide them through the process of applying for and verifying employment.

“The employer community is the one that's been screaming about 'hey we need people, we need people.' Whether or not this is the golden ticket, I don't know, but it's another option that we have,” says Eychner. “We've never done this in the state before, never run a program like this. So, to have it as an alternative solution to what we generally use is a great opportunity for us to understand if this is something that will ultimately benefit the state long term. It will be interesting to see. We just don't know but we are excited to get to try something that we haven't done before."

As of May 21st, 2021, this program is only for people who were receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4th. It doesn't pay people who may have left the workforce, but are not receiving unemployment.

For employers like DeWolf who are looking for workers: “If that's what it's gonna take, then I'm hoping that will be one of the attractions to get people to come back to work."

The Montana Department of Labor & Industry says depending on when one started the new job, one can receive the $1,200 bonus as early as June.

Montana was the first state to fully opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and several other states have followed. The decision has drawn mixed reactions. The move was supported by the Montana Contractors Association. They said workers are needed to meet the demand for construction jobs.

However, the Montana AFL-CIO, which covers 38 unions and 50,000 workers, said ending the program will do significant harm to working families who face a shortage of childcare, or workers who have pre-existing health conditions that put them at a greater risk of complications from COVID.

Unemployment insurance claimants will be receiving information soon about how these changes affect them individually. Until then, people with questions about their future eligibility are encouraged to visit or contact the Department of Labor & Industry at 406-444-2545. Claimants receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) should contact 406-444-3382.