If you believe Republican governors, some 11 million jobless Americans will now be racing to fill the many job openings businesses say they can’t fill. That’s on top of 3.5 million idle workers who were supposed to start clamoring for jobs during the last couple of months.

Nearly 15 million Americans have now lost federal jobless benefits that Congress initially established in the CARES Act of 2020. Several follow-on coronavirus relief bills extended those benefits, including the American Relief Plan, which Congress passed this past March. Most of those benefits expired on Sept. 6, including an extra $300 per week in traditional jobless aid and other amounts for gig workers and others who don’t have a regular employer. The Sept. 6 expiration affects 11.3 million Americans, according to Oxford Economics.

Republican governors in 25 states ended those federal benefits early during the summer, claiming they were hurting businesses by paying people more to stay home than to work. That took roughly two months of federal benefits away from another 3.5 million Americans or so.

The math suggests the disincentive to work could be legitimate. The average state unemployment payout is about $400 per week or $1,700 per month. Add another $1,200 in monthly federal aid, and the two combined might equal nearly $3,000 in monthly income. That’s equivalent to roughly $19 per hour (for a 40-hour-per-week job). So somebody who could only find work paying less than that might be better off taking the benefits instead.

That simple accounting leaves out many other factors, however, such as the fact that all jobless aid ends and most workers will need a job eventually. Many potential workers still worry about getting COVID-19 on the job. Some working parents still have their hands full with kids doing remote or hybrid schooling. Some older workers have retired early instead of hassling with the workplace in the time of COVID.

Several studies found that only a fraction of unemployed workers—probably no more than 15%—would rather accept benefits than work for a living. In July, Yahoo Finance interviewed a variety of workers in Republican states who lost federal aid early and found a much more common problem was that people couldn’t find work in their field that paid enough to cover their bills. Some could have taken lower-paying, lesser-skilled jobs in other fields, but they viewed that as a career setback that might keep them from getting ahead indefinitely. 

Lazy-worker theory

Employment trends in the GOP states that cut off benefits now show that the lazy-worker theory is mostly misguided. There’s been no notable boost in hiring or employment in those states, compared with states that continued the benefits. The early cutoff may even have hurt those states a little because they gave up federal money that boosted incomes and would have cost them nothing.

Congress has made no move to extend jobless benefits again. The Biden administration hasn’t asked for an extension, and polls show Americans generally think it’s time for supplemental jobless benefits to end. That removes one variable from a puzzling labor market in which joblessness remains high even though employers struggle to fill existing openings.

Muhlenberg, PA - August 26: A help wanted sign that reads

The latest data shows a record-high 10 million jobs available in the US economy. Half of the small businesses say they have jobs they can’t fill, the largest portion on record. Yet 8.4 million Americans are out of work and millions more qualified for federal jobless aid because they lost gig work or income in ways that don’t officially count as “unemployed” in the fairly narrow way the Labor Dept. defines it.

Shouldn’t all those unemployed people be filling all those open jobs? It might seem like it, except there are many mismatches in the labor market. The open jobs aren’t always where the job seekers are. The open jobs require qualifications the unemployed don’t have. Some posted jobs are probably employers fishing for overqualified workers they can get for cheap. Some employers simply can't or won't raise pay: While some big companies say they’re boosting wages, other data shows no notable jump in pay for workers both staying in their current jobs and moving to new ones.

Job-market trends for the next few months will begin to clarify whether federal jobless aid was too generous or should have ended sooner. If hiring jumps and employers finally fill some of those 10 million open jobs, that will be good news, but it may lead to tighter benefits the next time around. It seems more likely we’ll continue to have a stutter-step recovery with big job gains in some months, and disappointment in others. If lazy workers are a problem, they're probably not the biggest one.

The early months of the coronavirus pandemic shined a spotlight on essential workers.

As cities shut down, thank you signs went up on windows and applause rang out each evening for the workers still out there. At the time, there was hope the pandemic would be short-lived.

Instead, the virus spread evolved, and unleashed new challenges.

More than 60% of U.S. workers had jobs that couldn’t be done from home during the pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Front-line workers struggled with inconsistent masking policies, fought for hazard pay, and campaigned for lasting changes, including a $15 minimum wage and adequately paid sick leave.

The arrival of vaccines has brought new trials. Labor advocates fought for paid time off and other policies to help give workers access to the vaccines while confronting reluctance among many to get the shots.

At this latest crossroads, The Associated Press caught up with four of the workers it profiled last year: a nurse’s assistant, a subway driver, a cleaner, and a warehouse worker.

For all four, the biggest change was getting vaccinated. They have taken tentative steps toward normalcy, hugging family and traveling. But the pandemic continues to define their work and life.

THE CLEANER

Annette Brown’s boss called her into the office one day a few months ago. He read emails the medical staff had written, praising Brown’s dedication to her overnight job cleaning rooms at a medical center in Halethorpe, Maryland.

The recognition was hard-won. In the early days of the pandemic, Brown wandered around the medical center in search of leftover N-95 masks because the nurses had priority amid a nationwide shortage. A member of the 32BJ SEIU service workers’ union, she pushed unsuccessfully for hazard pay.

By her count, 11 coworkers quit during the pandemic. A single mother of two, Brown couldn’t consider doing the same. For a year, she spent days guiding her children through remote school before collapsing for three hours of sleep before returning to her overnight shift.

This month, she was promoted to supervisor, earning her a $2 hourly raise that bumped her pay to $17.90 an hour.

“They started showing a bit more respect to the housekeeping staff because they saw us in action and how important our job is,” she said.

Last year, Brown told the AP what she wanted most was a vaccine. She got hers in February but her fears still linger, especially for her children who will start school in person in the fall. Her east Baltimore neighborhood has one of the city’s lowest vaccination rates, at less than 50%, according to Baltimore City health figures.

Brown’s oldest son, 12, is eligible for the vaccine but told her he needs time to think about it.

“I’m known for a fact that I’m not going to make him it get it if doesn’t want to,” Brown said. “But I feel like it’s best.”

THE SUBWAY DRIVER

Transit workers in New York City became eligible for the vaccine in January, but Desmond Hill did not get him until April.

The subway conductor worried “because of how fast the vaccine was created as well as the politics that went into it.” His grandmother and father begged him to get it.

He finally rolled up his sleeve at a station where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York’s mass transit agency, was hosting a vaccination drive.

“The change of heart came from realizing what kind of job I have and what it requires of me as far as being in contact with thousands of people a day,” Hill said.

According to the MTA, at least 171 of its workers have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, the majority of the people of color. By May, just 40% of employees had been vaccinated. The state government finally required MTA workers to get the shots or face weekly testing by Labor Day. Nearly two-thirds of MTA employees have now been vaccinated.

Employer support has made a big difference in getting workers vaccinated, according to a survey of almost 9,000 service and retail sector workers by Harvard’s Shift Project. For instance, the survey found that 68% of workers who — like Hill — were able to get the vaccine at job sites were vaccinated. In contrast, less than 40% of workers who had no employee support were vaccinated.

Hill says getting the vaccine has made a “night-and-day” difference.

“Last year, like everyone else, I was afraid of being outside and afraid of being around people, I took lunch breaks in my car,” Hill said. “Now I’m vaccinated and I feel more comfortable.”

He celebrated with a trip to Las Vegas, and best of all resumed weekly visits with his grandmother.

“She’s sitting right beside me,” Hill said with a laugh. “We had lunch and went on a shopping run.”

THE WAREHOUSE WORKER

The pandemic pulled Courtenay Brown into activism.

It started in March 2020 when she saw social media posts from fellow Amazon warehouse workers demanding more protection from the virus. Brown, who works at an Amazon Fresh fulfillment center in Newark, New Jersey, jumped in after someone dismissively wrote that Amazon workers should just be grateful for their jobs.

Soon, she was recruited by the United For Respect labor advocacy group and found herself talking to journalists and lawmakers.

It was thrilling for Brown, an exuberant storyteller whose childhood included bouts of homelessness. During a news conference last fall, she made headlines when she threw out the phrase “turkey apocalypse” to describe fears that the holiday season would lead to a surge in infections.

But the slow pace of progress was disheartening. Amazon, for instance, never reinstated the hazard pay that was the key demand of the “turkey apocalypse” news conference.

“It’s one thing to be on the outside of the fight and suffering. It’s another thing to be in the fight. You get your hopes up,” Brown said. “Having no hope isn’t as bad as having hope and repeatedly having it crushed.”

Brown, a Navy vet, got vaccinated as soon as possible at a VA hospital and tried to talk hesitant co-workers into getting the shots. Amazon has held more than 1,100 on-site vaccination clinics. It has also offered bonuses and even a lottery for a car and a $500,000 cash prize to encourage its workers to get vaccinated but so far has stopped short of requiring the shots.

Still, the warehouse work itself has taken its toll on Brown, who developed tendonitis and plantar fasciitis over four years on the job. Amazon recently announced that it would ease upon, but not eliminate, its “time off task” tool that dings workers for taking too many breaks, which labor, safety advocates, have blamed for the company’s injury rates.

At this point, though, Brown yearns for a job that won’t punish her body.

“This is the last physical job I’ll ever have,” Brown said.

THE HEALTH-CARE WORKER

Linda Silva hasn’t regained her sense of smell more than a year after contracting COVID-19 while working as a nurse’s assistant at two hospitals in New York. But she’s grateful to be alive.

A doctor reminded her, ”A lot of people lost their lives, all you lost is your smell,’” she said. “Now, I’m moving forward.”

study by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian found that more than 3,600 U.S. health care workers died of COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic, two-thirds of the people of color. That study also found that nurses and support staff such as Silva were more likely to die than physicians.

After hurting her arm in October, Silva switched jobs to become a contract administrator for her union, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. She’s not alone: Hospitals across the country have struggled to retain staff.

Silva got vaccinated as soon as she could in January.

At the time, hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics ran into surprising resistance to the vaccine from workers, an ongoing challenge that has prompted a growing number of local governments to impose mandates. About a quarter of health care workers in New York remained unvaccinated when the state government imposed a mandate for them in mid-August.

For Silva, the vaccination has brought joy. For weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, she avoided hugging her husband and two sons. Instead, they would put their arms around themselves each day and and say, “I love you.”

By May, the rest of her family was vaccinated and celebrated with a trip to Kissimmee, Florida.

“It was our first time going out and doing something — it felt great to be able to get out there,” she said. “I want to let people know it is very important to take the vaccine. We can get back to more normalcy.”