State leaders hope changes to unemployment benefits help with worker shortages

Panama City

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Pandemic-related challenges continue locally and across the state, as businesses work to find staff.

In Bay County, several local businesses have had to reduce their hours and even cut out work days simply because of worker shortages; Many blame the issue on unemployment assistance, since individuals are receiving upwards of $575 a week, totalling almost $30 thousand a year. This is competing with wages of restaurants and other businesses, incentivizing people to stay home. 

“The last couple of years has been a struggle but I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Los Antojitos Mexican Restaurant owner, Matt Harbison. “There’s just not a lot of people coming in applying for the jobs.”

Harbison said they’ve had to close down on Mondays as kitchen staff shortages are making it tough to run the restaurant the way they used to.

“Along with everybody else, we’re really struggling in that department,” he said.

He’s one of many business owners across the Panhandle in the same situation, made evident by “Help Wanted” signs that can be found all over the area.

“We have employers calling us, emailing us, they’re contacting us daily just telling us we have such a need here,” said CareerSource Gulf Coast Communications Director, Brittany Rock.

The Department of Economic Opportunity addressed the issue last Wednesday in Tallahassee.

“All over the Panhandle I’ve seen signs that say welcome to the new pandemic, the 2021 pandemic is unemployment,” said the DEO’s Executive Director, Dane Eagle. He said the staffing issues are due to people taking advantage of unemployment assistance, receiving both state and federal aid without having to prove that they’re actively looking for work.

At the start of the pandemic, the work search rule was waived in Florida due to shut-downs and job-hunting difficulty. Now however, that rule will soon be reinstated.

“Individuals typically have to turn in at least five work searches every time they’re going in to claim their weeks,” explained Rock. “If an individual is offered a job and they choose to deny that job opportunity without a good reason, they can actually have their reemployment assistance benefits discontinued.”

She said the work search rule will be reinstated following Memorial Day weekend. After that, people will have to prove they’re actively working to find a job in order to claim unemployment and a system is being put in place to give businesses the ability to report claimants who aren’t following the rule.

“There’s no reason not to feel safe anymore,” Eagle said. “Vaccines are plentiful, jobs are plentiful. Unemployment is going to expire at some point. So, we want to help people get up on their feet.”

Harbison said since Los Antojitos is a family-owned restaurant and a fun place to work, he’s hopeful to have more employees soon.

“We would really love to see some more applicants coming in,” he said.

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