LABI collecting worker shortage data in effort to end enhanced jobless benefits

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is conducting a survey of businesses around the state that are struggling to hire workers as they seek to resume normal operations.

LABI began collecting the data early this week in an attempt to quantify the problem, which many in the business community attribute in large part to the continued enhanced unemployment benefits that make it more affordable for low-wage earners to stay home than return to work.

Though Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has bucked the trend of other Southern states, led by Republican governors, to cut off the federally funded enhanced benefits, he reportedly said on his monthly call-in radio show, Ask the Governor, that he wants more information to study the issue.

“He said he wants to dig into the details so we put out a survey in the field to try to get some data for him,” LABI President and CEO Stephen Waguespack says. “We’re trying to get street-level data and we’ve had a lot of responses.”

LABI is also waging a social media campaign that tells the story of companies struggling to hire, like Elmer Chocolate, in Ponchatoula, which currently has 150 open positions, according to CEO Rob Nelson, who says in a Facebook video, “this pattern is just not sustainable for our business.”

But economic experts and advocates for underserved populations have said that although the enhanced unemployment benefits appear to be factoring into the workforce shortage, low-wage earners have been most disproportionately affected by the pandemic and still face child care challenges and fears about catching COVID-19 while on the job.

They have advocated for raising wages to entice workers back, which is happening in pockets around the country, an official with the Fed told the Baton Rouge Rotary earlier this week.

Waguespack says it’s happening here, too, but is still not having enough of an impact.

“Our data so far shows that wages are going up,” he says. “More than 50 percent of respondents say they have raised wages to compete but the federal competitor is too much.”

LABI says one of the biggest surprises of the preliminary survey results is the overwhelming response from the health care sector, which appears to be experiencing as much of a shortage as the restaurant and retail sectors.

LABI remains “totally open” to using the federal benefit money to incentivize workers to go back to work.

“The same money would go to the same people,” he says. “We would just prefer to see it as a bonus or incentive rather than as an unemployment check.”