President Biden on Monday dismissed concerns that expanded federal unemployment benefits are discouraging people from returning to work, saying “we need to stay focused on the real problems.”
The president, who has been thwarted in his efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, also said businesses that received more than $1.4 trillion in COVID-19 relief last year should use some of that taxpayer money to boost wages to entice employees back to work.
“People will come back to work if they’re paid a decent wage,” Mr. Biden said in an address on the economy at the White House. “My expectation is that, as our economy comes back, these companies will provide fair wages and safe work environments. And if they do, they’ll find plenty of workers.”
Hiring in April slowed to weaker-than-expected 266,000 jobs, the government reported on Friday. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce blamed a $300-per-week federal jobless benefit for encouraging Americans to stay at home.
“Paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market,” the chamber said in a statement.
The president rejected that logic.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion since Friday’s report that people are being paid to stay home, rather than go to work, but we don’t see much evidence of that,” Mr. Biden said. “Look, it’s easy to say … because of the generous unemployment benefits, that is a major factor in labor shortages. Americans want to work. I think the people who claim Americans won’t work, even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people.”
Still, the president said the administration will make clear that the law calls on people to accept “suitable” job offers instead of collecting unemployment benefits.
“No one should be allowed to game the system,” Mr. Biden said. “But let’s not take our eye off the ball. We need to stay focused on the real problems in front of us — beating this pandemic and creating jobs. For many of those folks, unemployment benefits are a lifeline. Families who are just trying to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head, they aren’t the problem.”
The president’s line on wages parrots the most liberal members of his party. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont said rather than the government rescinding the $300-per-week additional unemployment benefit, companies should “end starvation wages.”
Responding to the Chamber of Commerce, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat, tweeted, “The interests of big business are at war with the interests of the working class. They will spend millions of dollars to take $300 a month away from you and your family, to force you to work for them for pennies. Their greed has no bounds.”
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