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Southeast Iowans Discuss Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

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David Hightower
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Arron Doane of Burlington, stands outside his home.

Iowans will stop receiving federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits next month. Governor Kim Reynolds said the programs are hurting Iowa's economy.

Iowa's not alone -- at least 10 other states are doing the same thing.

In those states and others, there’s been debate on whether the federal programs, including an extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits, are encouraging people not to return to the workforce. Opponents of the benefits say there has been a noticeable shortage of workers in retail stores, restaurants, and many other businesses nationwide.

Southeast Iowa has more people on unemployment than most of the state right now. The unemployment rate is 6% in Des Moines County and 5.7% in Lee County. The state average is 3.7%.

Difficulty Hiring People

Julie Daniels is a hiring manager at an automotive dealership in Burlington. She said it's been difficult even getting people to show up for a job interview.

"I can have 12 interviews set up for a week, and less than half of them actually show up. So they're wasting my time and resources, and that's very irritating," Daniels said.

Daniels said many of the jobs she is hiring for would have a starting wage of around $12.00 per hour, and the pay is higher for skilled positions such as automotive technicians and salespersons.

Daniels said some positions have always been difficult to fill, especially sales positions, but said it has never been this difficult to get people to come in for an interview. "We need people in the workforce and that's just how it is. We gotta have more people in the workforce."

Daniels questioned whether increasing the minimum wage is the right answer. She said wages should depend on the business.

"You start at a fast food place or grocery store or something like that and get your experience, and develop your work ethic,” she said.

Not Able to Return to Work

One person who wishes he could still be in the workforce is Arron Doane of Burlington. Doane is a COVID-19 long-hauler who developed symptoms of Neuropathy after a bout with the disease in January.

Doane works for a local factory making spark plugs, but he's been out on short-term disability since his legs gave out on him.

Since he technically still has a job, Doane didn't qualify for state unemployment benefits, but was able to receive the $300 per week in federal unemployment because the symptoms were caused by COVID-19.

Doane said between his short-term disability and the federal unemployment money, he's making just a bit less than when he was working.

"This is a big help for us," Doane said.  "No one's going to hire me right now, I can't say from day to day when they're going to release me to do anything. This is why we were kind of depending on this."

Doane said even though some people might be taking advantage of the extra unemployment money so they don't have to work, others still need the help that the federal programs are providing.

"There are some of us who are still hurt from COVID. Look at the situation. I'd gladly show them anything I've got to prove I'm not just getting out of work."

Doane said in order to get back to his job, he has to teach himself how to walk again, and be able to do it without using a cane.

"I still hold a $17 an hour job, I just can't go do it," he said.

"I understand this can't be done forever but right now it's helping pay the bills.”

David Hightower is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.