DEED commissioner: Other aid, jobs available to Minnesotans if $600 unemployment boost expires

A man speaking at a podium.
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove speaks at a press conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul on April 30. Grove told MPR News that while the extra $600-a-week unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of the week, Minnesotans who have relied on the federal benefits would still have some options.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The extra $600 a week that Americans have received in unemployment benefits is set to expire at the end of the week, if Congress does not strike a deal on a new stimulus package.

The expiration would come as the pandemic yet again tests our economy. A new surge in cases is causing some states to dial back reopenings. And many parents are feeling uncertain about work as the state mulls whether to reopen schools.

But Steve Grove, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner, said those who have relied on the extra unemployment benefits have some options. He spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann on Tuesday.

Hear their conversation using the audio player above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for clarity and length.

What do people who've been relying on that extra $600 need to know about what options will be available for them?

There are jobs out there to begin to apply for if your old job went away. We see huge need for nursing assistants, personal care aides, truck drivers, security guards and home health aides.

So I think that the good news, in a sense, is that there are a lot of jobs out there, and many of them don't require specialized training or backgrounds. You can get them with a high school diploma or less. That's important because, by far, the largest segment of our population that has been on unemployment insurance so far has been those with a high school diploma or less.

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There are also other forms of assistance if you are at risk of slipping into poverty given the end of these benefits, whether that be food stamps or housing assistance that come through our housing financing authority.

Some businesses we've talked to have been having problems attracting workers because they say this payment has made unemployment more lucrative than many jobs. Is there a better way to stimulate the economy and get more workers back in to the workforce?

We've heard this from a lot of employers, too. I do think that, you know, if Congress comes back with an extension of benefits, it's likely to be under $600 to try to stimulate workers to get back into the market rather than stay on employment. Seventy percent of the workers who've been on unemployment insurance thus far, they're making more on those benefits than they could in the market.

There's a big disparity in the state when it comes to unemployment. What's being done by the state to specifically address that?

It's stunning. One in 2 Black workers have applied for unemployment insurance and 40 percent of all American Indians in the labor force in our state have applied for unemployment insurance. That number for whites is about one in five. So this pandemic has, in the same way that it does not hit everyone equally from a health perspective, it certainly hasn't hit everyone equally from the perspective of our economy.

We are doing a lot of focused outreach through community groups and others to make sure that individuals are aware of the government benefits that are available. But it's also making us really rethink how we do government. You know, this has been a moment of reckoning for us.

We were able to pass a package in the last legislative session that specifically targeted $10,000 grants to businesses owned by people of color and cultural malls to ensure that they have some extra assistance at a time when that's really needed. And we're expecting to get that money out at some point here in August.

What can parents of kids who who may be at home this fall expect if that prevents them from working full time?

This is a pandemic. And the whole thesis of the [unemployment insurance] program is that if you're separated from work, through no fault of your own, then you're eligible. And certainly having to stay home and take care of your child in the middle of a pandemic is not something you can control. So, we we do make people eligible for unemployment insurance if that's the reason that they have to separate from work.