Following weeks of howling from business owners and Republican politicians across the country about how stimulus checks, along with unemployment benefits, were encouraging people to stay out of work, President Joe Biden has decided to weigh in, giving undeserved legitimacy to the disingenuous debate.
Speaking in the East Room on Monday, Biden told reporters that his White House will “make it clear” that people who are currently accepting unemployment payments will be required to take a “suitable job” if offered, or risk losing their benefits. The presidents remarks come after a decidedly depressing jobs report last Thursday, which indicated that only about 260,000 — compared to the original projection of 1 million — jobs were created over the past month.
It’s a strange move for Biden, who has mostly championed stimulus checks and the $300 federal unemployment supplement, both of which remain extremely politically popular policy positions. To remark on the unemployed now seems like capitulation to a right-wing narrative that insists that out-of-work people are largely lazy freeloaders who’d rather collect meager government checks instead of earning a fair, livable wage. And then, of course, there is the fundamental question that sits at the center of the president’s argument: What exactly is a suitable job?
Under the president’s new guidance, workers would theoretically be forced to explain to the feds why they declined a job offer. Biden didn’t outline what type of work that his administration would consider “suitable,” either; would people be required to accept shitty part-time work, even if it didn’t cover their bills? Alternatively, would the government demand that people accept jobs that put their physical or mental health at risk to make ends meet?
At its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some pretty extreme vulnerabilities in the American job market and economy. As restaurants were forced to close their doors, revenues at businesses of all kinds plummeted and millions were left unable to do their jobs. In those months, state and federal unemployment programs provided an essential lifeline to both American families and the economy.
But as soon as it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to resolve itself in a matter of weeks — especially not with the level of ineptitude that plagued the prior administration’s efforts to curb the virus — both legislators and business owners insisted that there had to be a safe way to return to work. Workers in industries of all kinds donned masks, sanitized their hands constantly, and tried to adapt to the workplace in what would prove to be a both miserable and dangerous time.
That was especially true in the restaurant industry. We’ve all seen the memes online: Your local Arby’s is short-staffed because there just aren’t enough people willing to make Coolattas and curly fries for 7 bucks an hour in the middle of a pandemic, and the nearby Tex-Mex spot has to close on Mondays now. According to some very concerned people on Facebook and dipshit pundits like Tucker Carlson, this all points to the downfall of the American work ethic thanks to the lavish, luxurious lifestyle that comes with collecting a maximum of $800 a week.
Of course, none of those people are willing to acknowledge just how bad being a line cook or driving for UberEats or making fries at McDonalds can actually be, and that maybe workers have rightfully decided not to take it anymore. In the past year, restaurant workers have been forced to contend with customers ideologically opposed to wearing masks, as well as endure brutal working conditions as demand fluctuated and social distancing measures were implemented. Maybe, after 11 months of being spat on, threatened, screamed at, sexually harassed, bashed over the head with cocktail glasses, and facing the threat of actual death, many of the service industry’s best workers decided that these jobs were, in fact, not “suitable.”
In a letter to the editor of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, former saute cook Kate Sanderson rejected the narrative that restaurant workers who accepted unemployment benefits at any point during the pandemic were “lazy,” explaining that her choice to work less in 2020 was specifically connected to her decision to get out of an industry she knew to be harmful. “I am confident that I am not lazy. I reject the risks endemic to restaurants in favor of another risk: investing in my future,” Sanderson wrote. “I took a hit financially so I could pursue a dignified job that rewards me for my talents. I am getting ready to contribute to our local community.”
This is a point that Biden himself made later in the Monday press conference. “I think people who claim Americans won’t work, even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people,” Biden said. Which is definitely an odd thing to say immediately after suggesting that there are, in fact, enough freeloaders who are taking advantage of the system instead of going back to work that the President of the United States must address it.
The restaurant industry, and many other industries that employ low-paid workers, have some real soul-searching to do. Employers need to figure out why people would rather work at Amazon warehouses, where peeing in bottles to spare time is apparently commonplace, than come back to waiting tables or bartending. It absolutely must figure out a way to compensate its workers more equitably, and address the systemic inequality that plagues it. Then, and only then, can restaurant owners complain about people not wanting to work in restaurants.
What is most infuriating about the remarks from Biden is that, like the fury that inspired them, they’re largely hot air, unlikely to ever actually materialize into any real policy. Most states currently require people on unemployment to do a certain amount of job-seeking already, and there’s no real way to prove whether or not a job offer is actually “suitable” for a given person. Biden’s statement is a completely asinine bit of pandering to Republicans, who plan to fight tooth-and-nail against another extension of the $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit. It’s already happening on the state level in Republican-led states like Alabama, Arkansas, and Montana, where legislators have announced that they will no longer participate in the programs that put extra cash in the pockets of their citizens.
What the president could do, though, is develop policy proposals that are aimed at meaningfully improving the working conditions of workers across industries. He could direct the Department of Labor to implement stricter penalties for employers that engage in wage theft, require companies to provide paid sick leave to their employees, and develop national safety standards for people who work in hazardous industries. He could stump even harder for the PRO Act, which would make it easier for millions of workers to unionize.
It’s especially galling for the president to suggest that people accept jobs that can’t support them, even after 40 hours of back-breaking work per week. This insinuation is incredibly insulting to the millions of line cooks and servers and meatpackers and valet parkers who were, pre-pandemic, pulling 12-hour shifts and still couldn’t afford to pay rent and the electric bill with the same paycheck.
Perhaps President Biden could more aggressively advocate a meaningful increase to the federal minimum wage. That, to borrow the his words, would not be turning our backs on our fellow Americans after a year packed with trauma and uncertainty.