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White House to work with states on reimposing work search requirements

A hiring sign offered a $500 bonus outside a McDonald's restaurant, in Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pa. on May 5, 2021.
A hiring sign offered a $500 bonus outside a McDonald's restaurant, in Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pa. on May 5, 2021.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Biden said Monday the White House will “make it clear” that Americans on unemployment must take a job if offered a ’'suitable’' one or lose their benefits, wading into an issue that Republicans have seized on in the past week.

The White House said it is directing the Department of Labor to work with states on reimposing work search requirements for Americans collecting unemployment benefits. The Labor Department will soon issue a letter to ’'reaffirm’' the rules of unemployment to ensure that workers, employers, and states understand the program, the White House said.

In remarks in the East Room, Biden reiterated that the administration disputes GOP claims that April’s jobs data, released Friday, shows that unemployment benefits are too generous and causing workers to stay home rather than rejoin the workforce.

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The White House did not announce a departure from policy on unemployment benefits. Still, the president’s remarks suggest that the White House is sensitive to the growing political criticisms over the handling of the issue. Several GOP-run states are moving to cut the unemployment benefits on their own.

’'We’re going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment,’' Biden said in remarks in the East Room. ’'There are a few COVID-19 related exceptions. . . . But otherwise that’s the law.’'

The White House has been forced on the defensive over some worrisome economic news this month, with the April jobs report showing a slowdown in the pace of job gains. Business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce have said the supplemental unemployment benefits approved by Biden in March are discouraging workers from rejoining the workforce and stalling economic recovery.

Democrats and the president have responding by urging patience and noting other factors, such as ongoing concerns about the coronavirus and the lack of available child care for working parents.

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Biden’s new message on Monday was primarily to demonstrate how the unemployment system works and underscore that the White House does not believe the benefits are to blame for the labor shortage, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. States waived their work requirements for unemployment benefits at the start of the pandemic, but 39 of them have reimposed or are planning to reimpose them.

About 18 million Americans are collecting some form of unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will begin deploying $350 billion in aid to state and local governments this month, a significant step in its effort to shore up segments of the economy that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, White House and Treasury officials said Monday.

The infusion of funds, which were included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law in March, marks Biden’s first big opportunity to start reviving infrastructure across the nation and to fulfill his goal of ensuring a more equitable recovery.

“With this funding, communities hit hard by COVID-19 will able to return to a semblance of normalcy,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. “They’ll be able to rehire teachers, firefighters, and other essential workers — and to help small businesses reopen safely.”

In remarks at the White House on Monday, Biden underscored the strain that many states and cities have faced in the last year and said the funds would help alleviate that pressure.

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“Because states and local governments have to balance their budgets, a lot them had to lay off state employees and local employees when the economy slowed and tax revenues fell,” Biden said. “We’re talking about 1.3 million state and local employees out of work.”

The details of the disbursement have been eagerly awaited by the states, cities, territories, and tribal governments. But several Republican-led states and the Biden administration are in a legal confrontation over whether states can cut taxes after taking relief money and using it to solidify their budgets.

The Treasury made it clear Monday that it would insist the relief money not be used to subsidize tax cuts, directly or indirectly.

“If the funds provided have been used to offset tax cuts, the amount used for this purpose must be paid back to the Treasury,” the Treasury Department said.

Material from the New York Times was used in this report.