A tenet of the American unemployment system has been that anyone collecting benefits, in good times and bad, must look for work.
That quid pro quo changed early in the pandemic. Profound fears of contagion and the sudden need for millions of workers to become caregivers led states to lift the requirements for reasons both practical and compassionate.
But as vaccinations increase and the economy revs back to life, more than half of all states have revived their work search requirements. Arkansas and Louisiana did so months ago in an effort to push workers off their swollen unemployment rolls. Others, like Vermont and Kentucky, have followed in the last few weeks.
ordered the Labor Department to “work with the remaining states, as health and safety conditions allow,” to put such requirements in place as the pandemic abates.
Research suggests that work search requirements of some form in normal economic times can compel workers to find their next job and reduce their time on unemployment. But the pandemic has added a new layer to a debate over how to balance relief with the presumption that joblessness is only transitory. Most states cut off unemployment benefits after 26 weeks.
Business groups say bringing back work search requirements will help juice the labor market and dissuade workers from waiting to return to their old employers or holding out for remote or better-paying jobs.
Opponents contend that the mandate keeps undue numbers of Americans from continuing to receive needed benefits because it can be hard to meet the sometimes arduous requirements, including documenting the search efforts. And they say workers may be forced to apply for and accept lower-paying or less-satisfying jobs at a time when the pandemic has caused some to reassess the way they think about their work, their family needs and their prospects.
“I think the work search requirement is necessary as an economist,” said Marta Lachowska, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., who has studied the effects of work search requirements on employment. But she added, “Perhaps given the big disruption we have observed to the labor market, people should be given some slack.”
In Washington, the issue has become part of a larger clash over jobless benefits that intensified after the disappointing April jobs report, with Republicans asserting that Mr. Biden’s policies are deterring people from looking for work and holding back the economic recovery.
A rising number of Republican governors have taken matters into their own hands, moving to end a weekly $300 unemployment supplement and other federally funded emergency assistance that otherwise isn’t due to expire until September.