BOSTON — Generous unemployment benefits are giving some laid-off workers more income from federal and state payments than they normally make on the job, which some business groups warn could make it harder to bring those people back to work.
Massachusetts already provided some of the most generous unemployment benefits in the country prior to the coronavirus pandemic. A federal law approved in response to the outbreak has boosted weekly payments substantially.
The CARES Act, a $2 trillion relief package signed by President Donald Trump in March, gave unemployed workers an additional $600 a week for up to four months, and extended payments for those who’ve exhausted regular state unemployment benefits by another 13 weeks.
The new law also provides benefits for self-employed and "gig economy" workers for up to 39 weeks. Those workers also get the extra $600.
That means some Massachusetts workers could get $1,423 a week, including benefits from the state, which are capped at $823 per week.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the payments could make it hard to bring some workers back as the economy reopens.
"There's going to be a lot of people who would just as soon sit home and collect the extra $600 than return to work," he said.
Hurst said the problem is already affecting some employers who've been allowed to remain open, many of whom have taken federal loans to stay afloat.
Unemployment benefits in Massachusetts are capped at 30 weeks, though most people only qualify for 26 weeks. The federal topper expires, in most cases, at the end of the summer.
How much someone gets from unemployment depends on a number factors, but the weekly benefit generally amounts to half of someone's regular wages.
Those collecting it are supposed to return to work when able, but Hurst and other business leaders say they don't expect aggressive enforcement of those rules.
The state Department of Unemployment Assistance couldn't say how many workers are making more in benefits than they earned in their paychecks.
More than a quarter of the state's workforce filed for unemployment benefits in the past month, as officials forced a swath of industries to shut down to prevent spread of the coronavirus.
More than 780,000 workers have filed for regular benefits since the outbreak began in mid-March, while another 185,000 have filed for special benefits now available to people who wouldn't otherwise get unemployment, according to the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development
The state's unemployment rate, which was 2.5% in February, has skyrocketed to about 25%, according to state data.
Nationally, more than 33 million workers have filed for new unemployment claims since late-March, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The potential downside for employers from the combined federal and state unemployment benefits was raised by a handful of Republican lawmakers as Congress debated the CARES Act. They argued that generous benefits would incentivize people not to return to work.
Chris Geehern, executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said employers are trying new ways to draw employees back.
"Some companies are paying bonuses to employees who are working through the crisis," he said. "Mostly they're trying to make workers feel safe to come back to the workplace."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.