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Thousands of Nebraskans Will Lose Extra $300 Unemployment Benefits This Weekend

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow, 440,000 unemployed workers in the U.S. will lose some or all of their federal pandemic benefits. Those benefits include the extra $300 a week on top of regular unemployment money, along with benefits that covered freelancers and part-time and gig workers. Twenty-six states - all but one Republican-led - are cutting short federal pandemic aid this summer. Nebraska is one of the eight states where those changes take effect tomorrow. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts is here now to talk more about that. Welcome to the program.

PETE RICKETTS: Thank you very much, Audie. I appreciate you having me on.

CORNISH: Just so people have some context here, the unemployment rate in your state has been dropping for more than a year. It's tied for lowest in the nation at 2.8%. So what's the rush to end these benefits now? Why not just let them expire?

RICKETTS: Well, we are essentially letting them expire by ending our emergency here in Nebraska. So, well, we've worked hard for the last year...

CORNISH: Well, you're cutting it off sooner than when they would set to expire. So they're set to expire in September. You're doing it now, which means 15,000 Nebraskans will lose benefits tomorrow.

RICKETTS: Yeah, sure. As you pointed out, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and we have, really, for the last year and a half. And if you look at our state generally, we're returning to normalcy. We're hosting the U.S. swim trials right now. We've got the College World Series that's actually coming up here later this month. Garth Brooks is going to be here with 90,000 fans.

We actually also have analyzed our numbers here, and we can see that there's two jobs available for every one person on unemployment right now and that 51% of the folks on unemployment are actually making more money now with that $300 a week than they were pre-pandemic. So we're - our state is ready to transition back into normalcy. And so this is just part of our transition back to normalcy.

CORNISH: Economists have also pointed to the lack of child care in keeping some parents from getting back to work. Again, with benefits set to expire in September, why not let it keep going till the school year starts back up again and people would have that support?

RICKETTS: Well, one of the other things we know - that some of the assistance out there is things like child care tax credits. I've had anecdotal stories of middle-class families that think they're going to get a benefit of 10- or $20,000 through those tax credits. We also have seen that (unintelligible)...

CORNISH: So I'm sorry. Just so I'm clear, you're saying anecdotes that say that people perceive something that's going to happen that isn't going to happen?

RICKETTS: Well, no. No, perceive that they're - because of the child tax credits that are out there, they're going to receive a benefit from that. So there's other - my point is there's other forms of assistance out there that are going to be quite significant.

And another data point that we have is that we have a rental assistance program here - again, part of the federal relief package - that is worth about $158 million. However, we only have about $4 million of that, which represents about 2.5% that's been awarded so far. So, again, another indicator here that we're ready to return back to normalcy.

CORNISH: You're describing an economy, you say, that's ready to open. You are describing also benefits, it sounds like you're arguing, that are essentially too high. Is that what I'm hearing?

RICKETTS: Well, certainly, I believe that if you - that employers should pay what the market is demanding. But I also don't believe that the government should be in competition with those employers for the workforce. So we all have to be...

CORNISH: But at $9 an hour in Nebraska, is it the case that you guys aren't meeting the market - right? - that potentially wages are too low and therefore people aren't going back?

RICKETTS: Well, I think if you talk to most employers here, there's probably very, very few people who are paying $9 an hour unless it's to probably a high school student. And even then, I'd be surprised if they were paying $9 an hour, again, because the market is just paying more than that.

CORNISH: What do you think they're paying at this point?

RICKETTS: Well, most employers I talked to, even for some of these starting jobs, are paying $10 an hour to start with. And that's for, again, kind of your high school kids are coming into it. So...

CORNISH: Right. But both would be lower than the 15 people perceive as a, quote-unquote, "living wage."

RICKETTS: Well, again, living wage is different across the country. So you can't really apply that here in Nebraska. And is - one of the things that we offer folks who are on unemployment is our job coaches. And we not only do that for our folks on unemployment but, for example, our families on SNAP. And we have great success in helping people get that next best job. And so that's what we really want to encourage - is people getting back to work, getting that next best job because that's the best long-term strategy for people and, you know, their families, as well as the health for our economy.

CORNISH: And with just a minute left, 46% of Nebraskans are fully vaccinated. Is that enough to get people back to work?

RICKETTS: Absolutely. If you look at where we are here in our states, we've got 33 people in the hospital right now with coronavirus. That's less than 1% of our overall hospital capacity. That's the lowest that we've tracked since we started keeping track of these numbers. You can look at our other statistics with regard to cases per a hundred thousand. I think the national average is around four. We're at 1 1/2, I think. As far as hospitalizations per a hundred thousand, the national average is, like, 6 1/2. We're at 2 1/4. So Nebraska really is well ahead of the curve as far as getting through this pandemic. And like I said, we're ready to return to normalcy.

CORNISH: That's Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, a Republican. Thank you so much for your time.

RICKETTS: Great. Thank you very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.