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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Most of Montana’s ‘back-to-work bonuses’ go unused, money reallocated

Help Wanted sign on a business door.

Montana’s program designed to encourage people to reenter the workforce during the pandemic is expected to spend about a third of the money set aside for it. State lawmakers Wednesday agreed on recommendations for how to spend the leftover $10 million.

The return-to-work bonus program got off to a slow start. Gov. Greg Gianforte announced in May the policy tradeoff while ending extended unemployment benefits.

Scott Eychner, with the state’s department of labor and industry, told lawmakers that the pace of sending out the $1,200 bonus payments to people who found and kept jobs picked up in recent weeks, but most of $15 million allocated for the incentives will go unspent, “leaving a chunk of 10 million [dollars] that would come back to this body,” Eychner says. 

This pool of money came from a pandemic economic relief package passed by Congress earlier this year.

The legislative oversight committee for Montana’s share of the federal funds agreed to send two recommendations to the governor’s office for how to spend the unused money in the back-to-work bonuses program.

They’re recommending that about $4 million go to a new program to encourage out-of-state health care workers to move to Montana and for the rest of the money to go to a business innovation program.

Scott Mendenhall is the state’s program manager for allocating the federal funds.

“We’ve already had an issue with trying to find and keep health care workers. Now with the pandemic, it’s taken it up a notch,” he says. 

Both reallocation recommendations were approved with bipartisan support.

Democrats proposed sending more than $10 million in payments to current health care workers in the state to encourage retention, but it failed on a party line vote.

According to a memo given to the oversight committee, the back-to-work bonuses program sent payments to about 1,800 people in nearly all of Montana counties. Several thousand more applications are still being processed before the program ends next month.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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