Addressing a crowd of hundreds Wednesday at the Franklin Marriott in Cool Springs, Gov. Bill Lee touted recent cuts to Tennessee's unemployment assistance as a useful tool in getting people to rejoin the workforce.
Lee also touched on what he considered to be "real concerns" of his regarding the recent wave of federal funding allotted towards states, and questioned whether the additional funding was "actually good for [the] country or not."
Lee's address was part of the annual convention for the Tennessee Broadband Association, an industry trade organization aimed at promoting telecommunications services in the state, primarily in rural areas.
"I had some real concerns about the massive amount of funding that's coming from the federal government and whether that's actually good for our country or not, but we will use [it] and be good stewards to make sure the citizens of our state are the ones that benefit from that," Lee said.
"Our unemployment rate is now below 5 percent; we had a quarter of million job openings in this state that are unfilled, and we believe some of the decisions we've made in the last few weeks will help move people from unemployment to full employment."
In May, Lee announced that Tennessee would opt out of federal unemployment assistance starting July 3. That assistance, which was guaranteed to continue through at least Sept. 6 of this year, included an additional $300 in weekly unemployment assistance, expanded assistance to gig and part-time workers, and other benefits not typically afforded by the state.
Also in May, state leaders voted to reduce the amount of time Tennesseans could receive unemployment assistance from 26 to 12 weeks, the shortest period in the country. Granted Lee signs the bill, the shorter unemployment assistance period would go into effect Dec. 1, 2023.
While those two decisions have not yet gone into effect, the state's unemployment rate has drastically improved over the past few months.
For the month of April 2021, Tennessee's non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, with just over 155,000 Tennesseans unemployed - a dramatic improvement over April 2020's rate of 15.6 percent.
Nevertheless, Lee stood behind his and state leadership's decisions to reduce unemployment assistance as a useful tool in enticing Tennesseans to return to work.
"Work is good for the soul, it's good for Tennessee, it's good for families, and it's good that we create pathways for people to go from unemployment to full employment — that's our plan," Lee said.
"You all see it out there, the number of companies and small businesses that are struggling to find workers, but we're working on that issue."