Remember when Gov. Bill Lee in May announced Tennessee's withdrawal from federal unemployment programs — part of the first COVID-19 pandemic stimulus intended to pay unemployed Tennesseans an additional $300 a week in benefits as well as additional $100 weekly for mixed earners?
How did that work out? Not too well, unless you think cruelty is a virtue.
The state's unemployment program pays up to $275 per week — one of the lowest weekly benefits in the nation and well below the national average of $387 per week. So that extra $300 helped unemployed workers keep their families fed and housed. Their purchases, in turn, continued to help Tennessee tax revenues, as another Associated Press headline explained: "Tennessee state tax revenues continue to exceed projections."
Yep. Year to date as of July, that tally was $2.8 billion (with a "b") more than projections, or put another way, Tennessee had a monthly growth rate in revenue of 18.6% compared to pre-pandemic's June 2019.
Gov. Lee, in a state with no minimum wage, shouldn't have been whining about people whom he claims don't want to work. And he certainly shouldn't have been so cruel as to pull out of a federal program that helped them. And the state, too.
But Lee in May said Tennesseans didn't need the extra money, and suggested it was keeping them from seeking work. He said those out-of-work folks had access to more than 250,000 jobs in the state. He ordered the federal unemployment help be stopped for Tennesseans just before the July 4 holiday, and then announced a big handout to businesses.
"Families, businesses and our economy thrive when we focus on meaningful employment and move on from short-term, federal fixes," say Lee, a millionaire before he ran for office.
But a funny thing happened. The last extra unemployment checks went out in July. Yet Tennessee's unemployment rate had in May already dropped to 5% from the 9.3% when pandemic shutdowns hit last year. And in June, it dropped again to 4.9%.
What that says to us is that most of the folks who could find work already had — some even upgrading their work skills after taking advantage of the early pandemic time off to get more training.
Sure there are still some open jobs. Just ask the city of Chattanooga which has 32 truck driver positions open and can't pick up recycling until more of those jobs are filled.
But that's not because the previous drivers don't want to work. It's because the city's commercial truck driver pay is 120% below market rate, according to Brent Goldberg, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's chief of staff.
Another reason we still have jobs to fill across the state is because of the boom in the economy — thanks to the very crisis relief that Bill Lee and the governors of about 25 other states are spurning.
A headline on Friday's Times Free Press Business page put it this way: "Economy surpasses size before pandemic."
The Associated Press story continues: "Fueled by vaccinations and government aid, the U.S. economy grew at a solid 6.5% annual rate last quarter in another sign that the nation has achieved a sustained recovery from the pandemic recession. ... [T]he Commerce Department estimated that the nation's gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — accelerated in the April-June quarter from an already robust 6.3% annual growth rate in the first quarter of the year."
Further into the story, we learned: "With consumers and businesses expected to keep spending, many analysts expect the economy to grow at a robust pace of around 6.5% for all of 2021, despite the supply shortages and the possibility of a resurgent coronavirus in the form of the highly contagious delta variant. That would amount to the strongest calendar-year growth since 1984."
That will far exceed the 2% to 3% average annual rates of recent decades. And it will represent a striking bounce-back from the economy's 3.4% contraction last year in the midst of the pandemic, the worst decline since the 1940s.
This week, seven Tennesseans sued Gov. Lee over his cruel and miscalculated decision to pull out of federal unemployment — money that was intended for them.
Identified only by initials, the would-be workers said in a federal complaint this week that they struggle to survive on the unemployment funds issued by the state while they continue to look for work. Those jobless folks said they've submitted hundreds of applications to jobs, most without receiving any response at all. And they've asked the court to instruct Lee to immediately reverse his decision.
As Tennessee transitioned away from the federal programs, in the week ending July 10, 9,375 jobless Tennesseans filed weekly certifications to continue their unemployment claims and 6,744 filed first-time claims. Comparatively, during the week ending June 19, 50,671 jobless Tennesseans filed weekly certifications to continue their unemployment claims, 4,736 of which filed first-time claims.
What that tells us is that most of the folks who could find and land jobs were hired and back to work as soon as spring tourism business opened up again. But Lee's action hurt the most vulnerable Tennesseans. What's more, it brought Tennessee little or no savings.
In June, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development paid 113,772 claims, totaling $62.9 million. Federal payments account for $54.8 million of that total, while Tennessee paid just over $8 million.