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Unemployed Not Eager to Risk Medical Bills for Low Pay, Low Benefits of Frontline Work

Governor Kristi Noem and other Republicans made it sound like the unemployed were just lazy layabouts living entirely off extravagant unemployment benefits and if we just cut off that pandemic assistance, the idle proletariat would rush back to the yoke of their capitalist masters. We’ve seen that experiment fail.

That failure shows the stunted understanding Republicans have of the modern economy and the concerns of workers. New analysis from the Minneapolis Fed shows the complexities of life in working America that Republican sloganeers like Kristi Noem, who’s been living off government checks for over a decade, just don’t grasp.

First, the vast majority of households that lost work income during the pandemic never tapped unemployment insurance. Digging through U.S. Census Bureau Household Purse Survey data, the Minneapolis Fed finds that UI use peaked at 28% of income-losing households in June 2020 and has declined since.

Even among the minority of households that lost income and received UI, workers sustained themselves with multiple money streams, including spouses’ paychecks, borrowing, raiding savings, and selling assets:

Erick Garcia Luna, "A High-Level Look at Some of the Complexities in Labor Supply," Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2021.09.10
Erick Garcia Luna, “A High-Level Look at Some of the Complexities in Labor Supply,” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2021.09.10.

Unemployment insurance helps people make ends meet in hard times, but cutting off UI doesn’t necessarily cut an unemployed household’s income to zero.

Even with benefits reduced, many workers, especially frontline workers in high-demand, low-wage fields like restaurants, hotels, and retail, may still calculate that during a pandemic, they can’t afford to risk big medical bills for an extra paycheck. The Fed’s analysis shows that the most common concerns among frontline workers are literal bread-and-butter issues: paying the bills, keeping a roof over their heads, and keeping food on their tables. Of concern to even more workers than housing bills are health care costs:

Garcia Luna, 2021.09.10.
Garcia Luna, 2021.09.10.

Two thirds of frontline workers are worried about paying for health insurance and heath care bills. Why would they rush back to expose themselves to a pandemic in workplaces where they face literal violence from reckless virus spreaders and where their employers have traditionally been less likely to offer health benefits?

Workers who aren’t rushing back to those frontline positions may not just be waiting for coronavirus to pass. Many are seeking a permanent switch to safer and better-paying careers. But switching careers takes time, training, and often tuition dollars. So they’ll be scrimping, saving, and studying rather than rushing back to serve your shrimp.

Garcia Luna, 2021.09.10.
Garcia Luna, 2021.09.10.

To understand why reducing unemployment insurance isn’t driving underemployed masses back to the workplace, we need to understand all of the factors that shape workers’ choices. Such economic thinking is complicated and thus above most Republicans’ pay grade.


  1. kurtz 2021-09-18

    Last year the American workforce chose to mount a massive wildcat strike to reject a tyrant. We all know Donald Trump is certifiably unwell but remember christians believed Barack Obama would bring the Second Coming and Herr Trump would deliver them from it. So, watching the entire GOP circling the drain while they drown their comrades trying to flounder from the maelstrom is the schadenfreude we Democrats need right now. Trump’s installation and downfall is the biggest political sting in the history of the United States. He and the GOP were set up by superior forces then were given enough rope to hang the entire cabal.

  2. Donald Pay 2021-09-18

    Those charts track what I saw over 15 years of helping unemployed or underemployed people find employment and stay employed. The biggest problem in applying for front-line jobs: computer applications. Many people lower on the income scale don’t have computers, or ready access to a computer. Sure, they can go to the library and get on a computer, but that assumes they have the computer skills to navigate what is often a very complicated application process. For many of my clients, I had to sit with them for hours to get through one application. Target, Home Depot, Walmart, grocers, you name the big employers of front-line workers all have computerized apps. If you can’t remember the exact date of your hire, what do you do? No one wants to lie on the job application. And it’s not just filling in the blanks of your basic info and work history. It’s effing personality tests and the like, which take a long time and are extremely frustrating. Then you have to have a email address. What? Many don’t have such a thing. Texting? Again, many don’t have a fully workable mobile phone. You know the righties used to scream because poor people got cell phones for free. Yeah, that was necessary so they could get an effing job that you keep telling them to get.

    Then there is the credential issue. That trips up a lot of really competent people who just don’t have the education, knowledge or specific credential. Do you really need a high school degree to mop floors? What really gets me is how they tie in a lot of various job duties in one job. You can’t just be someone who stocks. No, you have to combine that with checking. So now you’ve just kept a lot of good stockers from even applying. Employers need to GET EFFING REAL.

  3. jerry 2021-09-18

    Here’s some frontliners that are now seeking work. They would fit right into the mix here in South Dakota.

    “Some Kentucky health systems have fired employees who did not comply with their workplace’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

    By the end of the day Sept. 15, the requirement deadline, Morehead-based St. Claire HealthCare had fired 23 employees for noncompliance, hospital spokesperson Amy Riddle confirmed to Becker’s.

    St. Claire announced its vaccine policy on Aug. 4. At that time, more than 70 percent of the health system’s workforce was already vaccinated, the organization said in a news release. The last day for staff to initiate their vaccination or face involuntary separation of employment was Sept. 15. Twenty-three employees, or less than 1 percent of the health system’s workforce, did not comply.”

    If you did not comply,
    give South Dakota a try.

    A place where buzzards fly,
    while they watch you die.

  4. Jake 2021-09-18

    good one, Jerry! G. Keillor quality!

  5. Guy 2021-09-18

    LAZY RESPONSES from politicians, like Kristi Noem l, who can’t be bothered to do their actual jobs and analysis that Cory seems to find the time to do when he’s not working his regular job. If anyone’s LAZY, it’s some of these politicians, like Noem, who have lived off us for years with all their taxpayer funded benefits to boot. However, they spend most of their time lecturing us on “responsibility” and “hard work”. I read this week’s column from Governor Noem on her “responsibilities of spending taxpayer dollars wisely”….well, it gave me a good long laugh this morning as I tried to keep the orange juice from coming out my nose.

  6. Mark Anderson 2021-09-18

    Well one of our Restaurant owners shut down saying “nobody wants to work”. She left out “for me”. She never mentioned the four servers she had to let go, the cooks etc. Republicans imagine everyone is exactly like them.

  7. Guy 2021-09-18

    Mark, I think the major problem here in South Dakota: TOO MANY JOBS and not enough citizens. I’m not a business person and I would like to know if researching HOW MANY workers are available in any given population of residents is part of any well researched business plan? Are these new entrepreneurs studying who actually lives in the communities they want to open their next business? Are they studying how many people would actually be available to work for them? Instead, are they going by the “Field of Dreams” strategy of: “Build it and they will come” work? If the latter strategy is being used then, the result will be just an empty field of dreams.

  8. cibvet 2021-09-18

    If given a chance, the lower paid workers would be more than happy to move into better paying jobs. These quitters are going to have limited options to work if they stick with no vaccination and no masks. Even fast food joints require masks.

  9. Guy 2021-09-18

    South Dakota’s Department of Labor Secretary Marcia Hultman actually warned us that we do not have enough workers to fill at least 20,000 job vacancies in this state. These figures actually come from South Dakota’s Department of Labor. Hello, Kristi Noem: your own Labor Department Secretary has been telling you for months the reality of the situation. We are OVERBILT and probably have too many businesses for the amount of workers available and we have a HUGE lack of affordable housing across this state. But, Kristi Noem doesn’t seem to listen and she doesn’t seem to care about facts and reality.

  10. larry kurtz 2021-09-18

    According to WalletHub South Dakotans work hard and play even harder but New Mexicans find working for others to be abhorrent and the federal government is overwhelmingly the largest employer in the state. South Dakota ranks at the bottom for women-owned businesses but New Mexico has the highest number of businesses owned by women.

    South Dakota’s winters are brutal and unforgiving but it gets above freezing every day every day of the year here in the middle Rio Grande valley. A Democratic governor and legislature are flush with cash and looking for ways to improve people’s lives, build a film industry, advance passenger rail and preserve public lands.

    South Dakota banks will continue to hoard trillions in hedge funds and dynasty trusts by addicting state residents to video lootery and enslaving landowners with unbreakable debt while Mrs. Noem fiddles.

  11. Eve Fisher 2021-09-18

    This is a state with under a million residents (880,000 at last census) and 77,000+ square miles of territory. Everything has to be done in this state that has to be done in every state: restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, retail shopping, government, education, all the medical facilities, etc., but by one heck of a lot less people over (in many cases) a heck of a lot more territory. This means we’re all busy. Even the retired. On top of that, everyone has to pitch in and volunteer, for everything from non-profit organizations to fire departments to valeting at the hospitals to prison visitations to school monitors, etc., etc., etc. No, there aren’t enough people for all the jobs that are available, and I heard that a lot of people are scrambling for the Amazon jobs, leaving even more local businesses in a world of hurt.
    We could really use some hard-working immigrants, like from Afghanistan or Mexico.

  12. O 2021-09-18

    Guy, I agree about the number of (bad) jobs being too high to be supported by SD labor. The DOL is also recruiting in high schools, telling kids that this is a great time to enter the market for a job. One DOL official described SD as being at full employment.

    Now that the extra unemployment benefit has run out (the red states opted out earlier) and there is not a wave of workers who had been sitting on the sidelines because of that benefit, will the GOP be held accountable for being wrong about the economy and ho it works AGAIN?!

  13. Guy 2021-09-18

    O, I hope so. We need Billie Sutton in Pierre. He would be a much better fit for our rural capital town. Plus, Sutton would keep the state plane flying with in the borders of South Dakota and actually reform Pierre and this state.

  14. grudznick 2021-09-18

    The generation of lazy we are creating will all eventually starve. Get to work you slackards. Work harder and make more money. Soon they will stop giving the free money away to the lazy. The lazy will have to choose between $15 at McDonald’s or starving. Darwin will end the entitled lazy people.

  15. Jake 2021-09-18

    Yep, in South dakota you have the “right to work” for LESS (as we don’t need no durned unions heah in this state) and we don’t need no danged federal regulations tellin’ us what to do for our employees-they need to show us they appreciate working for us-cuz ya know “we’s the greatest nation on earth” to quote our wanna-be cowgirl governess.

  16. Guy 2021-09-18

    Grudz, that’s the answer of a simpleton. Kristi Noem is not interested I’m the hard work of governing like an adult. Kristi is too lazy to do the actual hard work. She’s more interested in living in a reality show and campaigning for national office….that does not work for the people of South Dakota. Kristi noem is only interested in publicity. She’s just a empty show horse with a pretty face: “look at me…look at me!!!!!”

  17. Jake 2021-09-18

    grudz (alias BrainFog)-are you telling us that those people working 2 or 3 jobs should figure how to work 1 or 2 more?! Seems so!
    Just because you rode the gravy train of legislative favoritisms all these years doesn’t mean Joe or Jane Sixpack with a family getting minimum or a little better wage jobs should anticipate doing as well as your gravy laden self.

  18. Guy 2021-09-18

    Jake, good point! I just love that Twitter post by Governor Noem where she pulls up at the Starbucks in Sioux Falls and all the hard working baristas point to her face showing in the drive through window like she’s all it. Basically, Kristi wants to reinforce that she’s the most beautiful Governor…SHE IS ALL IT….and everything revolves around her. You see the SICK sublimal message? Billie Sutton is not the drop dead, hypnotizing, gorgeous goddess Kristi Noem likes to convey every day through her social media posts. Of course Billie is not, he’s a guy. IAs beautiful as Stephanie Herseth is, she did not run and govern based on her looks and what outfit she was wearing. She was as serious and down to earth as Billie Sutton. I’m sick and tired of the crazy pageantry from Kristi Noem. Billie needs to declare to take her on again and very soon. We want a REAL GOVERNOR and not a MS. USA Pageant.

  19. Mark Anderson 2021-09-18

    Oh grudz, I could point out an old Roman writer who was complaining about the younger generation. This was about five hundred years before their empire fell. What you said is just so stupid how could you allow yourself to say it. You aren’t really that much of a cliche are you? I thought more of you.

  20. Bonnie B Fairbank 2021-09-18

    Kristi Lynn is a former teen beauty pageant winner who has dead, nothing-behind-her eyes credibility, and a highly questionable degree from SDSU. Last time I stood in line at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs to vote, four guys ahead of me were discussing her, and one said “Man, she shore is a cutie. I wish she’d suck me off like she does that Ryan guy.”

    I started mail-in voting after that. TMI.

  21. Guy 2021-09-18

    Bonnie, Billie could take her on easily next year and expose that vapidness. Billie can relate to those Common Joes in a way Kristi can not: through the substantive ISSUES that affect all rural and urban South Dakotans.

  22. Guy 2021-09-18

    Billie now has 3 years of Noem’s baggage he can work to his advantage after almost defeating her in 2018.

  23. Donald Pay 2021-09-18

    I think, Grudz, rather than lazy, people aren’t putting up with employer BS anymore. There’s a lot of people quitting now because there are a lot of job openings. There are a lot of job openings because people are quitting. What you are seeing is “churn,” which is a sign that people want to work, but not for brain-dead employers. They are looking for better jobs, more pay, less BS. A lot of people prefer gig employment, a number of jobs at a time and short-term stuff. I have a friend who demanded to work from home four days a week with one in the office. He’s much more productive working from home. The only reason they wanted him in the office was to “supervise” him. Uh, he knows his job better than his supervisor. Sorry, the problem isn’t lazy workers. It’s brain-dead businesses.

  24. M 2021-09-19

    I live 100 miles from a city yet there are A LOT of unemployed young men between the ages of 18 – 30 that hang around the park, loiter on Main Street, and baby sit their girl friends kid while she’s at work. NO JOBS for them except physical labor like roofing and they sure don’t want to work that hard. Did I mention that many of them live at home, and they are so talented that they can walk and play games on their phones at the same time. The 24 year old across the street can play on his phone and scope out the action on the street all day with his multitasking skills.

    Many of us over 65 who are retired but had part time jobs gave lots of hours up because of the pandemic. And I did not work my usual summer part time jobs either. Those hours weren’t many as most everything here is PART TIME unless it’s a city, county, state, or federal job. All my friends and relatives work a part time job here to make ends meet but we’re doing the jobs that young people won’t.

    When I heard the offer from the tech schools for a one year degree, I made a list of 12 young men and 4 young women that I’d like to sign up immediately. Who would pass up such an offer if they have nothing? There are opportunities out there, however a huge motivation problem for these youngsters. They don’t want to leave home.

    I do agree also that people are tired of employers BS. Any frontline workers should be admired and thanked, no matter if they are a nurse or grocery store clerk, however they need “battle” pay as well as some RESPECT. Funny how so many employers in SD pay little and say the least to their employees. However, those few employers that pay really well, give praise and bonuses, and genuinely respect their employees have very little turnover. We have a couple biggies here who are desirable to work for because they’re locals that worked hard and honest. This town would collapse without them.

    What is the solution to the job shortage? Heck, those who make the big money get paid to do that not me. Ms Noem likes to create problems, never finding a resolution, moving on to another problem, make an accusation, move on. She swings more circles with that lasso of hers than I can keep track of. Billy, where are you?

  25. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-19

    M, curious: how many of those idle young gamer boys you see around town are collecting UI or other government benefits?

  26. grudznick 2021-09-19

    grudznick got his intended goats, Mr. Anderson. The defenders of the lazy raise tasty goats.

  27. M 2021-09-19

    Pretty much none of them.

  28. Joe 2021-09-19

    I can’t tell if grudz fancies himself a bush league Andy Rooney or has suffered a minor stroke. Maybe both? Best to get to a doc when the Covid medical triage abates and get it checked out.

  29. Donald Pay 2021-09-19

    Grudz talks about “the lazy.” I worked with people who were unemployed and had a hard time connecting with jobs. I’d say 95% were not lazy. They applied for job after job, took several jobs that were part time, no benefits, as a last resort. When they got sick, there was, of course, no sick leave and no health care benefit to see a doctor, and a reduced check at the end of the pay period. Most of the time they just went to work sick, because they couldn’t afford not to, so the poor customers that day got soup with a little snot in it. Sometimes they were sick enough that the employer would tell them to go home, and promise they would be paid for the day. Most of the time, the supervisor would say, “Why did you come in here sick?” Well, I guess because they would fire her if she didn’t come in sick. Some people had complicated lives. They had kids who got sick, and no child care that would take a sick kid. They would have to miss work. Too many misses and they would be back needing help sending applications out. For Grudz, it’s all about “getting goats.” For actual people working is about survival and dignity. It’s easy for fat ass Republicans to call people lazy. But, really, those people serving you gravy with your biscuits are far, far less lazy than they are. And, I hope you like a little snot with your gravy, because that’s what you serve.

  30. mike from iowa 2021-09-19

    Grudzilla spends his formative hours with imaginary goats, imagining people who can’t make a living on minimum wage jobs as lazy and grifters like Noem Nothing and drumpf as capitalist heroes.

    I wonder how many magats, having been told skunk essence straight out the sac, would cure any illness, would be seen with their noses in a skunk’s nether parts?

  31. grudznick 2021-09-19

    Mr. Pay, should the last word of your rant be spelled “deserve” or do you really mean “serve?” Those two missing letters really lend a different twist to your blogging.

    Plus, gravy goes on taters, butter and marmalade goes on biscuit.
    Tell all your out-of-state friends that grudznick wants them to get back to work, and off the dole.

  32. O 2021-09-20

    One element not talked about enough (M does touch on it) with unemployment is the issue of employer reciprocation or loyalty. How did so many become unemployed in the past 18 months? When times got tough, did employers hold the line to protect their employees (especially while collecting funds from PPP)? Many employees have had shoved in their faces the reality of the value of working for employers or in industries that will cut them loose at the first sign of trouble (economic trouble for the owners). Low wages, struggle to survive, even direct danger to health: all only to ensure the income can flow steadily to the owner — but NO stability for the employee who is making that money for the owner.

    The whole reason behind taking most jobs is trading in for security. Crappy jobs, crappy bosses, crappy customers, not pursuing personal vision/goals but some level of economic security. Once the pandemic exposed the lack of security in those jobs, all that was left were the crappy jobs, crappy bosses, and crappy customers, and not pursuing personal vision/goals.

    SO few jobs even have an ability to move up – there is no better future than the entry level position one begins with. When Grudz talks about these “lazy” kids who will not take jobs, it is because they cannot see themselves in those same jobs 20 years from now. That is the new reality of the new job market. They see that even if they take those jobs, their salaries will not keep up with the increase in housing costs, so ever being able to move out of mom and dad’s house is an unobtainable dream — even with hard work. Making money, making dreams come true for only others/only owners is not motivating to a workforce.

    So the questions I pose to all the employers saying they cannot get workers are: 1) were your positions fully staffed before the pandemic? 2) how/why did you lose employees but keep the business going during the pandemic? (bonus question 3: have you dropped your prices to reflect the lower service and lower labor costs you have now?)

  33. M 2021-09-20

    I was not defending Grutz for calling the unemployed lazy. RATHER, I was describing my small town. The boys don’t want to leave when they have it so cushy at home. I suspect drugs and alcohol but I also see a great deal of enabling going on as many are living off family and some friends. Seems parents don’t want them to leave either. Some do small jobs for cash.

    As to employers in SD, let’s start at the top. Our governor does not do positive role modeling very well. She has quite a turn over in personnel and it has nothing to do with money. It has a lot to do with how Kristi feels about herself and I’m sure if her employees aren’t infatuated as well……off they go. She does like to hire men as they tend to ogle more and we know that’s what Noem is all about. She exemplifies many employers in SD, it’s all about them and their goals.

    Example in small town. Mom, Dad, and 2 girls run a family restaurant. They have a beautiful home that’s paid off, 2 SUVs, 2 4x4s, a motor home, 2 motorcycles, a huge boat with 2 jet skies and 2 planes. Waitresses made $2.25 an hour however they sold the café when the SD legislature raised the pay. Those poor waitresses got lousy pay and no respect.

  34. O 2021-10-08

    This month’s job numbers are out. It was a disappointing increase. This was also the first set of numbers with the federal unemployment “bonus” eliminated everywhere (mean-spirited Red states had ended the supplement before). All of this seems to indicate that Republicans were wrong AGAIN about why workers were staying out of jobs.

    Conservative talking points are not the same thing as economic analysis. Still our Republican leaders refuse to address the real issues keeping our workforce on the sidelines.

  35. O 2021-10-24

    “Right to Work (For Less)” states have the highest quit rates and most difficulty getting employees back on the job. Who would have thought that a complete disregard for a workforce could have hiring consequences? These states, SD included, have spent decades creating an environment so hostile to workers that the pandemic has pushed a “the this job and shove it” response from segments of the workforce who feel most exploited.

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