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Even though Iowa's coronavirus cases remain high compared to when the pandemic began, the state announced Iowans will need to begin looking for new jobs soon if they want to receive unemployment.

Iowa Workforce Development said Thursday it will reinstate on Sept. 8 a requirement for unemployment recipients to look for work, potentially stripping workers of benefits if they turn down jobs. The state suspended the requirement when COVID-19 cases began to rise in mid-March.

In a statement Friday morning, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said, "It is much better for our economic recovery if Iowa can move people off of unemployment and back into full-time jobs ... We encourage all Iowans who are able to begin searching for their next opportunity.”

Some advocates for the unemployed criticized the state for restoring the requirement, given the rate of positive cases in Iowa remains high. The state's seven-day average for new cases on Aug. 20 was 568, according to the New York Times. That is the highest seven-day average in more than a month and more than twice where it stood on June 20.

"It's hard to understand how those translate into a decision to require a work-search," said Alex Kornya, general counsel for Iowa Legal Aid.

Under the requirement, unemployment recipients must maintain a "work search log" that shows at least two job applications a week. The state can strip workers of unemployment benefits if they reject "suitable" job offers.

A suitable job offer must pay a wage close to what workers earned from their prior employment, but the requirement changes with time. The first five weeks workers are unemployed, they can reject any offer that doesn't pay at least as much as their old jobs. From weeks six to 12 of unemployment, workers must accept jobs that pay at least 75% of what they used to earn.

Workers can also reject jobs if they are unsafe. But Kornya said he worries the state will strip benefits for people who have legitimate concerns about entering a workplace.

"(A rejection of benefits) might turn on safety concerns in a way that it never has before," he said.

According to Glassdoor Economist Daniel Zhao, Iowa is the 10th state to announce that it will require unemployed workers to look for jobs again.

But Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, said a spike in COVID-19 infection rates can lead states to push back the requirement. Texas and Florida initially announced they would resume work-search requirements in early August. But Stettner said both pushed the mandate back a month as cases remained high.

In West Des Moines, Innovative Injection Technologies President Darin Endecott celebrated the state's announcement. He said he can't find enough workers because his wages at his business are lower than what the state previously paid out in unemployment.

He believes workers are avoiding jobs at his injection molding company because they think Congress will pass another stimulus bill to boost unemployment payments. The previous $600 federal payments equated to more than new employees make during a 40-hour week. 

In early May, the injection molding company Techniplas filed for bankruptcy. Endecott said he and his human resources director drove to the company's Ankeny factory and displayed a sign, announcing that Innovative Injection Technologies would hire the workers.

He said workers told him they wanted to get laid off to receive more money from the state. Even after the $600 weekly payments stopped at the end of July, he has not seen applications from those workers.

"It blows my mind," he said. "At my (pay rate), I could compete with restaurants and hotels and movie theaters. I need those people who work those hours: 3 to 11 p.m. in the restaurant industry or the entertainment industry. Those people aren’t showing up."

No timetable for unemployment boosts

Iowa Workforce Development has not yet provided a timeline for when unemployed workers will receive an extra $300 a week through Lost Wages Assistance, a program created by President Donald Trump's executive order earlier this month.

The program gives workers the extra money as long as they make $100 a week in unemployment payments.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the new unemployment payments, said in official guidance that the states should be able to start paying workers by the end of the month.

It's also not clear how long the program will last or how much money each state will get. FEMA said it would provide money each week to states based on their number of unemployed workers.

As of Friday, FEMA approved 14 states for the program. Another six states have applied. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced two weeks ago that the state would not apply for the extra funds because it "is in the fortunate position of not needing to accept it." (South Dakota had about 8,800 continuing standard unemployment claims two weeks ago, compared to 83,600 in Iowa.)

FEMA gave Iowa $110 million, funds that the federal government says will pay the state's unemployed workers for three weeks.

Overall, the program is funded with $44 billion from FEMA's disaster assistance program. But that same money can evaporate from the unemployment program if the federal government needs it for natural disasters, including the derecho that swept through Iowa last week or the hurricanes that loom in the Atlantic Ocean.

Katie Newman, 38, of Altoona, said her family needs the extra money as soon as possible. Her husband, 27-year-old Ben Desrosiers, got furloughed from his job as an inventory manager at Slumberland Furniture on March 23.

With the extra federal benefits, Desrosiers earned slightly more on unemployment than he did working, his wife said. But the extra payments stopped at the end of July.

With a family of eight, Desrosiers supplements his income as a part-time Adventureland Park ride operator. He saves on gas by pedaling his bicycle to work and the grocery store. Between his unemployment checks and his job, Desrosiers earns about $400 a week.

Newman said the family has tried to cut back, choosing not to buy a new laptop when their old one died and dressing their baby in hand-me-down outfits. But unexpected medication expenses for their older children piled up.

And the couple's 10-month-old daughter, Evvie, has severe allergies that require multiple doctors' trips a week. Health insurance covers major expenses. But Newman said the cost of driving alone adds up for the family.

"We didn't live lavishly before," she said. "But not being able to get things when we need them or when unexpected expenses pop up — that's the hardest."

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

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