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‘I’m not above water’: Nebraskans concerned after pandemic unemployment benefits end

Published: Jun. 22, 2021 at 6:32 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Saturday marked the end of Nebraskans being able to qualify for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

But some citizens are expressing concern as many still struggle to find jobs.

“The pandemic unemployment, it has helped me at least stay at water-level. I mean, I’m not above water,” Anthony Ruzicka said. “It’s allowed me to be able to eat; I have a place to sleep.”

Ruzicka lost his job just before the pandemic began due to medical reasons. While trying to find a new job after the pandemic hit, he was able to qualify for pandemic unemployment benefits.

He says that an extra $300 a week was vital to him. He’s been searching and applying for jobs feverishly, but says he isn’t having much luck.

“I could go get a job at McDonald’s but here’s the problem, I’m always told I’m overqualified. I’ve actually fully been told I’m overqualified and they will not hire me because they don’t think I’m going to stay long enough to make training worthwhile for them.”

Ruzicka isn’t the only one, either.

“There are a lot of people struggling with that and we’ve seen fluctuations across industries, where some industries are getting hit harder than others, and some industries are hiring more than ever,” said Stan Odenthal, the Director of Business Relations at the Heartland Workforce Solutions.

Heartland Workforce Solutions helps connects Omaha job seekers to employers in the area.

After Gov. Pete Ricketts announced in May that the federal benefits would be ending, Odenthal said they saw and were prepared for, an influx of people coming to them for help.

“There’s certainly a lot of jobs that are available but there’s a talent pool that is shrinking a little bit,” Odenthal says. “So you may see a low unemployment rate but that may not be everyone that is out there looking for a job.”

Odenthal says every person searching for a job has a unique case. For example, with meatpacking or line production jobs, a person could qualify for the job, but may not be able to get there if the bus route doesn’t reach that area.

For reasons similar to that, Ruzicka started a petition to try to get Ricketts’ attention and hopes to convince him to extend the pandemic unemployment benefits until at least September. It has nearly 20,000 signatures.

“If we get him to change his mind, great, but at least reconsider. It’s going to do more harm than it is good.”

Odenthal says the idea that Nebraskans aren’t working because they make money on unemployment is a misconception.

“People want to be working, we see that every day as people come in our doors. There’s that satisfaction about going to work and feeling good about the work you’re doing and everyone wants to be a part of that,” he said.

Ruzicka agrees.

“It’s not like I don’t want to work,” he says. “To be honest, I’m bored sitting home. I’m bored filling out applications.”

6 News asked Ricketts about the petition and the termination of pandemic unemployment benefits. The governor responded:

“Nebraska is ending the extra unemployment benefits because our state is returning to normal. Over 50% of people drawing unemployment benefits have been making more money on unemployment than at their old job. There are 15,688 unique individuals who claimed benefits across all programs for the week ending June 12th. As of last week, there were 32,807 job openings on the state’s job website, or two jobs for every person who claimed benefits last week.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

6 News took a look at those jobs: The majority pay less than $40,000 yearly, and many require specific degrees, certificates, or licenses.

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