Following a May decree by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, pandemic-related unemployment benefits for some 24,000 workers ended over the weekend, and results from a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll show Utahns are overwhelmingly supportive of the changes.

Most respondents also said they believe people on unemployment rolls were not returning to work because of the higher benefits available to them through federal COVID-19 relief funding that was set to expire in early September.

The findings are from a survey conducted by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen of 1,000 registered Utah voters from June 18 to June 26. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Overall, 74% of those surveyed said they strongly or somewhat agreed with Cox’s decision to curtail those benefits, along with other programs, on June 26.

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Of the 20% of respondents who indicated they knew someone receiving unemployment, 52% said those recipients were delaying a return to work because of the additional $300 per week provided through federal aid. But 25% said the unemployment claimants they knew were still drawing benefits because of challenges finding new jobs, and 17% believe delays in returning to work were due to unemployed workers’ fears related to COVID-19 or ongoing responsibilities in caring for family members.

Five things we learned about Cox’s decision to end pandemic benefits

“This is the natural next step in getting the state and people’s lives back to normal,” Cox said in May when announcing the move. “I believe in the value of work. With the nation’s lowest unemployment rate ... and plenty of good-paying jobs available today, it makes sense to transition away from these extra benefits that were never intended to be permanent.”

He also noted other “safety net programs” such as assistance with rent, utility, food and medical bills will still be available.

Cox is among some two dozen Republican state governors across the U.S. who have made similar decisions about ending federal pandemic benefits early, saying the added benefit is keeping people from wanting to work.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services’ South County Employment Center in Taylorsville is pictured on Friday, March 19, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A frustrating disconnect?

Labor experts say the shortage is not just about the $300 payment. Some unemployed people also have been reluctant to look for work because they fear catching the virus. Others have found new occupations rather than return to their old jobs. And many women, especially working mothers, have had to leave the workforce to care for children.

Following Cox’s announcement in May, Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, pointed to those factors while expressing his frustration with the governor’s decision to end the benefits in Utah.

“I mean, this is the perfect example of a disconnect between people in regular lives and people who are struggling to get back on their feet,” King said. “There are many, many people who are concerned — afraid — about returning to the workplace.”

What “frustrates me the most,” King said, is Cox’s decision “reflects this thinking of many on the other side of the aisle that people don’t want to work. That’s fundamentally wrong.

‘It’s affecting us personally’

In a Deseret News interview, St. George resident Barry Brumfield said he is a lifelong Republican who also voted for Cox in Utah’s 2020 gubernatorial election but felt the governor’s decision on curtailing federal pandemic benefits early was a bad call.

“We’re very unhappy with this decision,” Brumfield said. “We really believe in individual rights and benefitting by your own hard labors, but we’ve gotten to the point where it feels like our hard labors have been lost.

“We support the other things (Cox) is doing but this is our one argument because it’s affecting us personally.”

Brumfield, who is retired, said his wife lost her 13-year position with SkyWest last year as the airline travel industry was brought to a near standstill by the pandemic. While Stacey Brumfield continues to seek work, Barry Brumfield said the only offers she’s had so far are for minimum wage jobs and that, at 63, she’s not in a position to start over on a new career path.

Utah’s booming economy can take it

Phil Dean, former state budget director and current public finance senior research fellow with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said Utah’s economy is well situated to absorb the $50 million-a-month that will be lost in the suspension of federal pandemic benefits.

“I just think we’re at a point in the economic recovery where it really does makes sense to do it,” Dean said. “In aggregate, elimination of the benefits will have a negligible impact on the economy ... though it remains the case that certain pockets are recovering more slowly than others and some households will feel these changes.”

Dean said it’s important to remember that the standard unemployment insurance benefit programs will remain in place and those unable to find a job will still have access to the standard claims process.

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He said that while the programs launched by the federal government to mitigate the worst of the COVID-19 economic impacts on individuals and families was the right response at the time, current circumstances no longer require the additional benefits.

“The scope of the challenge we had in the midst of the pandemic as well as the government’s involvement in restricting the private sector made the initial response entirely appropriate,” Dean said. “And it is entirely appropriate now to pull back those enhanced benefits and go back to the traditional programs and system.”

Losses go beyond $300 a week

As of early June, the Utah Department of Workforce Services reports that just over 24,700 residents were drawing some type of unemployment benefits with about 12,000 getting traditional benefits plus the federally funded $300 per week pandemic stipend. Another 11,000 or so were still getting unemployment insurance benefits under federal extensions also created to blunt COVID-19 economic impacts on U.S workers. And about 1,200 Utah gig workers — people employed by companies like Uber, Lyft, GrubHub and others that are classified as contractors who are exempt from typical unemployment benefits — have also been receiving benefits under federal emergency mandates.

While federal deadlines for most pandemic-related benefits for unemployed workers are set to expire in early September, Cox’s order brought them to a halt 10 weeks ahead of schedule.

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