FindingAug 19, 2020

Dynamic Trade-Offs and Labor Supply Under the CARES Act

Corina Boar, Simon Mongey
New research finds that unemployed workers receiving benefits that exceed their previous wages would still prefer their old job, at the prior wage.

Sixty-eight percent of workers who lost their jobs due to the COVID pandemic received benefits that exceeded their previous wages,¹ raising the question of whether those workers would decline offers to retake their old jobs at the prior wage.

To investigate this important policy question, the authors devised a model that approximates the environment faced by unemployed workers, including the short duration of the extra benefits, the likelihood their offer to take back their old job stays valid, the likelihood they will find another job if they turn down their previous employer’s offer, and related issues. They check their model’s results against available data. Except in special cases, the authors find that unemployed workers would accept the offer to return to their old jobs at their old wage.

The authors first consider what workers would do if they made an incorrect, static, decision: Keep the higher benefits or return to work at a lower wage. In such a case, 68% of workers would choose the higher benefits under the CARES Act. However, when workers weigh up these dynamic issues—like whether the benefits would end, whether the job offer was limited in time, and whether other jobs are available—most workers would accept the job offer and return to work. Only a worker with a low previous wage and an almost certain return-to-work offer would turn down their old job and remain unemployed under the CARES Act.

According to this analysis, the CARES Act did not cause high unemployment in April to July 2020 by decreasing labor supply. While the precise cause is beyond the scope of this research, the authors do note the likelihood of low labor demand, and/or low labor supply due to health risks.

1 See Ganong, P., P. Noel and J.S. Vavra (2020): “US Unemployment Insurance Replacement Rates During the Pandemic,” BFI Working paper and BFI COVID-19 Fact.