A group of more than 40 members of the Kentucky forest products industry is pleading its case with the state’s governor, supporting a request by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to phase out the state’s participation in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program.

Banded together through the Kentucky Forest Products Association (KFIA), the group suggests that federal assistance makes the hunt for labor more difficult, as the nation faces out-of-control lumber prices and shortages.

“Our economy is rebounding at a record pace, and we cannot compete with our state government paying people to remain out of the workforce,” the group tells Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “We must get employable applicants off the sidelines and back to work so the forest products industry can supply their customers and remain competitive with offshore producers.”

Among the issues cited for holding back lumber and millwork producers are workforce availability and a struggle to recruit qualified applicants. “The forest products industry faces enormous pressure across the country to produce a variety of goods including building materials, interior millwork, flooring, pulp and paper, as well as other materials that support the market,” the group says. “We have tremendous opportunities before us and need more workers to staff our businesses.”

Nearly half of the state includes forest land, the group says, which, according to the Kentucky Forest Economic Impact Report of 2020, contributed a direct economic impact of nearly $10 billion last year, employing nearly 60,000—including many from rural and distressed counties.

“I continue to hear concerns across the state from our members about their struggles to employ qualified applicants,” says Bob Bauer, KFIA executive director. “So many of these businesses are family-owned, working in rural and distressed counties. As their trade association and advocate in Frankfort, we hope the governor will give this matter his full attention. We and others stand ready to work with his administration on a solution.”

The FPUC was created in March 2020 to address concerns about a free-falling economy, says Michael Thornberry, author of the letter and vice president of Powell Valley Millwork.

“Like so many government assistance programs, cash payments are a one-size-fits-all approach that is now hindering what could be a remarkable economic recovery in the state,” Thornberry says. “Our business remains strong with demand downstream for American-made hardwood products, but we do not have the workforce to produce.”

Companies shouldn’t have to compete with unemployment benefits in order to hire and retain employees, Thornberry suggests, adding, “I hope Governor Beshear will consider what nearly half the other states have done by incentivizing folks to return to the workforce rather than paying able-bodied individuals to remain at home.”

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