State ending federal COVID unemployment benefits, launching return-to-work incentive

The state is launching a return-to-work bonus program using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and is ending its participation in federal pandemic-related unemployment benefit programs by June.

That state will return to pre-pandemic unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits.

The bonuses will be paid to unemployed individuals who rejoin the labor force and accept and maintain steady employment for at least one month.

The Return-to-Work Bonus initiative will offer $1,200 payments to individuals receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4, who subsequently accept employment and complete at least four paid weeks of work. Individuals eligible for the bonus will be contacted by the Department of Labor and Industry and informed of their eligibility, as well as more information about how to ensure they receive the payment after they complete four weeks of employment, according to a release.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a release that he’s heard from employers statewide who are facing labor shortages.

“We need to incentivize Montanans to reenter the workforce. Our return-to-work bonus and the return to pre-pandemic unemployment programs will help get more Montanans back to work,” Gianforte said.

Across Montana, employers struggle to find workers, particularly in the health care, construction, manufacturing, and hospitality and leisure industries, according to Gianforte’s office.

“Montana’s unemployment rate is at just 3.8 percent – near pre-pandemic lows – and statewide there are record numbers of new job postings each week. But today, despite an influx of new residents into Montana over the last year, our labor force is some 10,000 workers smaller than it was before the pandemic,” Commissioner of Labor and Industry Laurie Esau said. “Our labor shortage doesn’t just affect employers and business owners. Employees who are forced to work longer shifts, serve more customers or clients, and take on more duties have been paying the price.”

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the unemployment rate in Cascade County was 4.3 percent as of March 2021. The department data shows a workforce of 36,854 in the county with 35,264 people employed and 1,590 unemployed.

Arizona is also reinstanting job seeking requirement and Michigan and Maine ended federal unemployment benefits in April.

Requirements that unemployment insurance claimants actively seek work and be “able and available” for work will be reinstated effective June 27, as well.

Specifically, the state labor department is making the following chances to the unemployment insurance program, according to a release, beginning June 27:

  • Claimants who have exhausted their traditional UI benefits but had continued to receive them through the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program will no longer be eligible for UI payments.
  • Montana will no longer be issuing supplemental $300 weekly payments to claimants under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
  • Montana will no longer participate in the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. PUA presently provides benefits to the self-employed, the underemployed, independent contractors and individuals who have been unable to work due to health or COVID-19 affected reasons.
  • Montana will no longer participate in the Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation program, which offers supplemental payments to individuals who had both traditional W-2 income as well as self-employment income.
  • Requirements that claimants be able to work, available for work, and actively seeking work in order to be considered eligible for benefits will be reinstated. These requirements had previously been suspended under emergency rule-making authority in March of last year. More information about work-search and “able and available” requirements is available in the UI Claimants handbook.

Unemployment insurance claimants will be receiving information soon about how these changes affect them individually. Until then, those with questions about their future eligibility should visit MontanaWorks.gov or contact the Department of Labor and Industry at 406-444-2545. Claimants receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance should contact 406-444-3382.