MADISON (WKOW) -- During a question-and-answer session with business owners Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) blamed ongoing unemployment benefits and stimulus checks for the problems some companies reported having in trying to fill job openings.
Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) met virtually with business owners during a webinar hosted by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).
WMC said its most recent survey of members revealed their top concern was labor availability. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin has the ninth-lowest unemployment rate at 3.8%.
Vos said he's experienced the challenge of hiring staff at his popcorn business in Racine County.
"We have a hard time finding workers right now," he said. "We use five different temp agencies and in one week, right after the federal stimulus dollars went out, most of those temp agencies said they have zero people apply."
The long-time Assembly speaker said he was concerned a number of workers were opting to live off unemployment checks and three rounds of stimulus money as opposed to reentering the workforce.
"I know we have a great work ethic but people are people," Vos said. "If you give them free money, they certainly don't have the same incentive to work as if they have to put food on the table through their own labor."
Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), who owns a restaurant, said she believed businesses should be responsible for creating a workplace that attracts employees.
"We have a responsibility to incentivize workers to come back," Hong said. "It displaces the responsibility from the employer onto the employee and the workers who've been struggling this past year."
Hong said earlier this year her restaurant, Morris Ramen, received a Payroll Protection Program loan of $65,000.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported Vos's popcorn business, Robin J. Vos Enterprises, received about $298,000 in PPP loans.
Hong said business owners who've received federal help to stay afloat should not criticize individuals who've collected unemployment benefits.
"For workers not to be able to have a federal safety net and employers to be able to is unfair and unjust," she said.
GOP leaders have said in recent days they do not expect to once again waive the one-week waiting period for people seeking unemployment benefits.
Under the American Rescue Plan, the federal government would continue to pay states for the cost of the first week of unemployment benefits should they waive any waiting periods they typically have.
In February, lawmakers eventually waived the period in Wisconsin after it was costing the state more than $1 million per week. A similar delay over the three-week period last March cost the state about $25 million when a surge in unemployment applications were costing the state about $8 million per week in federal reimbursements.
Vos said the climate has changed drastically since then. With an unemployment rate back under four percent, Vos said lawmakers should now redirect their efforts toward incentivizing people to find jobs.
"I don't want to make it easier to be on unemployment," Vos said. "I don't want to make it easier to stay out of the workforce because every single business I know, from my local Dairy Queen, to my biggest manufacturer needs more workers to come into the workforce."
Summer return to in-person work
Vos said he wanted the country to go further than President Joe Biden's call to make July 4 a target date for safe celebrations with family and friends.
Vos said he wanted Independence Day to also mark a return for people safely going back to work on-site.
"That's the date I'm looking at, kind of that kickstart of summer when the vast majority of people want to be outside, they want to go to events, they want to get past the pandemic," he said. "I think that's when I hope the business community joins in, that we don't keep people working from home."
Hong said Republicans calling for a return to in-person work were being hypocritical if they've previously argued it should be up to businesses to decide for themselves whether to require mask wearing.
"I think the speaker and other folks in the party across the aisle speak a lot about choice," Hong said. "And if they want business owners to have the choice and the choices to reopen, that should be on the business owner."