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Dept. of Labor & Industry to notify those eligible soon for MT's new return-to-work bonus program

Unemployment program
Posted at 10:23 AM, May 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-22 12:23:51-04

HELENA — **Scroll below the Frequently Asked Questions section regarding the bonus program**

As unemployment falls, Montana businesses continue to struggle to find workers.

Earlier this May, the Governor's Office announced plans to opt out of pandemic unemployment assistance and give workers receiving unemployment a one-time bonus for securing employment.

As more people are vaccinated and restrictions ease, business is returning to normal.

“Business has been coming back rapidly. It’s going to get much more intense,” says Toby DeWolf, owner of Bert & Ernie’s in Helena.

The return to normal could be challenging for businesses as they compete for workers in a tight labor market.

Signs like the photo above have become a common sight in the community.

“I feel like there will not be a point in time where we won’t be hiring for a long time,” says DeWolf.

The owner of Bert and Ernie's in Helena says hiring has been a challenge all year.

“I think it's going to be a challenge to get people to think about coming back to work after being on unemployment for so long,” says DeWolf.

It's a problem a new program by the Gianforte Administration hopes to ease with a program to incentivize workers on unemployment to return to work.

Under the plan, the state will opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefits on June 27th, 2021. People who are receiving pandemic-related unemployment, including people who exhausted traditional unemployment, the self-employed, independent contractors, and people unable to work due to health or COVID-19 affected reasons, will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

To further incentivize people to find work, anyone receiving unemployment as of May 4th, 2021 is eligible for $1,200, if they find a job and complete four paid weeks of work.

“Generally, our biggest concern is just the overall number of jobs that we have and the overall number of what we know to be the available labor force,” says Scott Eychner. He is the Workforce Services Administrator for the Dept. of Labor and Industry. “The number of jobs continues to grow and we just have enough people to fill them. So this program, other things that will come through the ARPA funds, all those are intended to try and address all of that situation, just a general workforce shortage."

The state will reach out to the estimated 22,000 people eligible and guide them through the process of applying for and verifying employment.

“The employer community is the one that's been screaming about 'hey we need people, we need people.' Whether or not this is the golden ticket, I don't know, but it's another option that we have,” says Eychner. “We've never done this in the state before, never run a program like this. So, to have it as an alternative solution to what we generally use is a great opportunity for us to understand if this is something that will ultimately benefit the state long term. It will be interesting to see. We just don't know but we are excited to get to try something that we haven't done before."

As of May 21st, 2021, this program is only for people who were receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4th, 2021. It doesn't pay people who may have left the workforce, but are not receiving unemployment.

For employers like DeWolf who are looking for workers...

“If that's what it's gonna take, then I'm hoping that will be one of the attractions to get people to come back to work," says DeWolf.

Bert & Ernie's is hiring for different positions. If interested, you can submit a resume in person at their location (361 N Last Chance Gulch #5058, Helena, MT 59601) or fill an application out on their website.

The Department of Labor and Industry says depending on when one started the new job, one can receive the $1,200 bonus as early as June 2021.

Montana was the first state to fully opt out of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The decision has drawn mixed reactions. The move was supported by the Montana Contractors Association. They said workers are needed to meet the demand for construction jobs.

However, the Montana AFL-CIO, which covers 38 unions and 50,000 workers, said ending the program will do significant harm to working families who face a shortage of childcare or workers who have pre-existing conditions that put them at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19.

Frequently Asked Questions:
**Answers are according to Scott Eychner, Workforce Services Administrator with the Dept. of Labor & Industry**

1. Who is specifically eligible for the payment? Does someone who is not employed have to be on unemployment to be eligible for the return-to-work bonus?

Only those receiving any type of unemployment from the State of Montana as of May 4th, 2021, will be eligible to receive the bonus payment.

2. If someone left the workforce and is not collecting unemployment, say a mother who chose to stay home with kids during the pandemic or someone chose to retire early, are they eligible for the payment?

No, they are not eligible for this specific bonus program. However, Scott Eychner says more programs possibly targeting these groups and more are in the works and could possibly be officially announced in the next few months.

3. How does the program work specifically? Are people on unemployment automatically signed up? Do they have complete any paperwork or forms? Does the employer have to do anything? How does the department track the status of the employee over the 30 days?

The Department of Labor & Industry will notify those eligible for the bonus via email or mail.
"There will be an online application that we will have posted on our website where they will fill that out to let us know that they've gone to work," says Eychner. "Four weeks after that they'll give us a start day, four weeks after that, we will reach back out to them and we will have to do some verification of employment and we will do that ideally through pay stubs and that point where we're able to verify those then we can issue the bonus payments."

4. How is the program striking a balance to prevent fraud, but not making it too difficult for those who meet the requirements to receive the incentive payments?

"The way we mitigated [fraud] is at the point the commission and the Governor approved the program, we went back a week to establish the eligible population. So, we have a master list essentially, of who those folks are. So, anybody going forward could complete the application, but if their name is not on the master list, if they were not filing as of the week the program was authorized, they would not be considered for the bonus," says Eychner.

5. Do people who return to work part-time qualify? Are people who are under-employed and receiving partial unemployment benefits qualify for the payment? If they are partially employed, do they have secure full time employment?

Only those receiving any type of unemployment from the State of Montana as of May 4th, 2021, will be eligible to receive the bonus payment. This includes part time, self-employed, etc.

For more information regarding this program, you can visit the Department of Labor & Industry website here.