BOSTON — Business groups are urging the state to restore a work-search requirement for people collecting unemployment benefits, arguing that stricter rules are needed to get more workers back on the job.

Gov. Charlie Baker relaxed the rules last year amid a wave of layoffs and unemployment claims fueled by government-mandated business closures in response to the pandemic.

While Baker has outlined plans to fully reopen the state's economy over the next several months, he has yet to bring back the work-search requirement, even as neighboring states have taken similar steps.

Business leaders say they are struggling to fill vacancies. They point to a lack of incentives to get off unemployment benefits as a main reason.

"As the summer months approach, businesses are going to struggle to fill vacancies and meet consumer demand," said Chris Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

A recent National Federation of Independent Business report showed about 44% of small business owners nationwide reported not being able to fill job openings last month, Carlozzi said.

The numbers are likely higher in Massachusetts, he added.

The governors of other New England states, including Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, have brought back work search requirements in recent weeks as officials try to coax more people back into the workplace.

Massachusetts paid out nearly $6 billion in jobless benefits last year as hundreds of thousands of workers were sidelined. A deluge of claims forced the Baker administration to borrow more than $2.2 billion from the federal government to continue paying benefits.

Massachusetts' labor market has been gradually improving as the state eases COVID-19 restrictions and takes steps to allow more businesses to reopen.

The state's unemployment rate dropped slightly to 6.8% in March, after adding more than 12,800 jobs.

Last week Massachusetts reported 11,483 new applications for state jobless benefits were filed for the week that ended May 1 — a decline of 3,600 claims from the previous week.

Meanwhile, another 1,400 workers applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally backed program that covers workers who don't qualify for state benefits. That's about 180 fewer than the prior week, the agency said.

Jobless workers in Massachusetts and elsewhere have been buoyed by a $1.9 trillion relief bill, signed by President Joe Biden in March, that extended federal jobless programs until September. Those include a $300 per week federal benefit.

Employers have complained that generous benefits give some laid-off workers more income from the weekly payments than they normally make on the job, making it much harder to bring those people back to work.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his group is also pushing for a return of the work-search requirement, but he points out that it "isn't a silver bullet" for improving the pandemic-battered labor market.

"We have the most generous unemployment benefits in the nation and one of the lowest bars to qualify for them," he said. "That's the root of the problem."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com

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