Now that Pennsylvania voters voted “YES” on May 18 to curb the governor’s emergency powers, it’s time for the Legislature and the governor to work together to handle the next, equally important, challenge. 

We must get Pennsylvanians back to work. Our unemployment rate is almost 2% higher than the national average—and yet every sector of the economy is posting “help-wanted” signs. For those in the restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors, it’s bordering on a crisis.

Until we get every business operating at 100% capacity, Pennsylvania’s economy will continue to be weak. Small businesses and retailers will be in danger of closing. If Pennsylvania doesn’t address this, we will fall further behind other states, and it will crush our long-term economic recovery.

Because this current workforce shortage is largely government created, via the governor’s orders, the Legislature can work with him to fix it. They can do this in a few targeted ways that won’t require new taxes or new spending. Based on our Chamber’s work, here is what we suggest that Harrisburg does now. 

It is now clear that the additional $300 in unemployment compensation (UC) is providing an incentive for too many to choose not to go to work. Several states are addressing this in different ways. Some are reinstating the “work-search” requirement for unemployment compensation. This requirement was understandably waived during 2020, before the availability of the vaccines, but now, with jobs readily available, it’s reasonable to be reinstated. If Pennsylvania is to take this action, it ought to be by legislation—not merely executive order.

Until we get every business operating at 100% capacity, Pennsylvania’s economy will continue to be weak.

Additionally, Pennsylvania could follow the lead of some states that are choosing not to issue the extra $300 in federal UC, thereby removing the incentive for everyone to stay home. Another option (the least desirable) is to offer a one-time signing bonus, using some of that federal money. Yet, even doing that would save taxpayer money and grow the workforce.

Each of these solutions has its merits. And until our state government chooses to act on one or more of them, Pennsylvania will fall further behind other states as hundreds of thousands of people remain out of the workforce, causing reduced economic activity, and less tax revenue.

Second, every school at every grade should be reopened for in-person instruction five days a week—including for summer school. There is no scientific reason not to do this. This not only removes any need for parents to be at home; it makes sure that our teenagers are learning and preparing to enter the workforce.

Third, to encourage every business to open now—and to open-up fully—Pennsylvania ought to join other states and offer limited liability protection to employers. Employers would be told what the best safety practices to employ are, and then be incentivized to follow them completely, in exchange for lawsuit-protection. Removing this barrier is critical. It makes economic sense and helps create safe workplaces, spurring the return to spaces that have been fully or mostly closed.

To encourage every business to open now—and to open-up fully—Pennsylvania ought to join other states and offer limited liability protection to employers.

Fourth, and in many ways the easiest, least complicated, but perhaps most important: our leaders—starting with Gov. Wolf—must lead by example. Once you’re vaccinated, get rid of your masks. Go shopping. Go to a ball game, even a little league game. Go buy coffee at Wawa (or Sheetz, if you’re into that sort of thing). Share your return to normal—do media interviews about it. Many of our elected officials have spent the last 66 weeks talking to us about staying home, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated (urging caution, even fear). In fact, even today, many elected officials still have profile pictures with their masks on—some even adding something like “wear a mask” to their names on Twitter. Others have largely been invisible.

Well, now it’s time to lead in a new, important, and very different way. Live life! And show us that it’s okay to do so.

Pennsylvania went into the Covid era with an economy that was ranked in the bottom ten states. Gov. Wolf responded to the pandemic by locking down more of the state for a longer period of time than any other state. These two factors mean that Pennsylvania officials must work quickly, smartly, and effectively. Otherwise, we will be a bottom five economy—with limited opportunity, shrinking tax revenue, and little hope.

These are four ways that we can reopen fully, based on common sense and a proven record of success—and none of them require new taxes or new spending. If put into effect, state spending would go down and tax revenue would go up. Most importantly, our quality of life would improve.

The people of Pennsylvania led the way on May 18. The next move is up to our elected officials. The time to act is now.

Guy Ciarrocchi is CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry. Follow them at JoinChescoChamber.org

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