Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Throughout the pandemic, much attention has been given to unemployment numbers, one of the key indicators of the strength of the economy.
Nationwide, unemployment dropped to 4.2 percent in November, and is on track to reach pre-pandemic levels of 3.5 percent by the end of next year. Maryland’s unemployment rate, while higher than the nationwide level, has been dropping as well. Yet, as more jobs continue to be filled, many public sector jobs through state and local governments remain unfilled.
Maryland has nearly 6,000 vacant state jobs and has both the budget and the authority to fill them. Instead of cutting unemployment benefits, Maryland should use its power to increase wages and benefits to incentivize workers to join the public sector.
Vacancies in state and local government jobs are not unique to Maryland, but are instead indicative of a nationwide trend. Since the Great Recession in 2007, local and state governments have faced budget shortfalls and instituted austerity measures that harmed employment in the public sector. State and local government jobs were beginning to reach pre-recession numbers before the pandemic caused a cut of nearly 1.3 million jobs nationwide. Even though some jobs have returned, as of October, the public sector has lost more than 900,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
Recently, state and local governments have had an influx of funds, largely as a result of federal stimulus from the American Rescue Plan. Maryland itself has a $2.5 billion budget surplus. The large budget surplus provides an opportunity for an investment in underfunded and understaffed agencies, who have demonstrated their importance throughout the pandemic.
State and local government employees play important roles in normal times, but have shouldered an enormous responsibility during the pandemic. These employees, ranging from health workers and first responders to transportation and school staff, have been on the front lines, providing essential services to our communities despite the risk of COVID-19.
Maintaining well-funded and functioning state and local governments is critical to handling the response to COVID-19 and the economic recovery. Previous cuts to the budgets of state and local health departments hamstrung their ability to effectively respond to the pandemic, leaving them understaffed and without necessary resources and infrastructure. On the economic front, state and local governments have struggled to handle the surge in unemployment claims, making it more difficult for residents to obtain services and aid.
Governor Larry Hogan’s approach to increasing employment has relied on ending temporary increases in unemployment benefits early, despite having federal funds to continue them throughout the year. The logic behind this policy was that increased benefits creates a disincentive to work. However, early research from states that prematurely cut benefits has disputed this claim, finding that employment didn’t increase significantly in the aftermath. Other factors such as the risk of COVID-19, inadequate pay and benefits might have also played a role in lagging employment — factors that cutting unemployment benefits didn’t address.
An opposite approach might be the solution. Instead of austerity, Maryland should invest more into its overburdened state and local governments and increase wages and benefits to attract workers. Unions representing state employees have complained about the low, stagnating wages they have received, despite their critical role in managing the pandemic. Increasing salary and benefits would simultaneously energize and reward the current public sector workforce, while attracting new workers to fill vacancies.
As one component in his five-part plan on spending the $2.5 billion surplus, Hogan directed the Department of Budget and Management to explore increasing benefits for state employees in annual collective bargaining with unions. However, details have not been specified, and it remains to be seen in what form the benefits come and if they will be an adequate incentive to retain and attract workers.
State and local government employees are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. Providing wages and benefits that allow them to not only survive, but thrive, is essential to improving services, increasing employment, and rewarding frontline workers.
Zach Wandalowski is a sophomore government and politics and economics major. He can be reached at [email protected].