LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska will end a $300-a-week unemployment bonus that has been going to jobless workers during the pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday as he declared a “return to normalcy” and rescinded the last of his virus-related executive orders.

Nebraska joined at least 22 other Republican-led states that are halting the additional unemployment benefits, including assistance for gig workers and the self-employed, who don't normally qualify.

“Now it's time to return to normalcy,” Ricketts said at what he called his last pandemic-related news conference.

Ricketts said the extra benefits will end June 19. The state is also stopping pandemic assistance for people who earn money from both self-employment and wages, and a program that extended regular benefits once they were exhausted.

The different benefits are going to a total of 15,837 recipients and were slated to expire in September if Nebraska hadn't withdrawn from the federal programs early.

Ricketts pointed to Nebraska's status as the state with the lowest unemployment nationally last month and one of the lowest overall throughout the pandemic. He said he also believes that the $300 benefit creates a disincentive to find a job when the state's online job portal has 39,000 open positions.

Workers' advocates have disputed that argument and countered that employers should offer higher pay if they want to attract quality employees. Ricketts, who has opposed previous minimum wage increases, said employers should pay what the free market dictates.

“I certainly think the employers should pay what the market demands to hire people," Ricketts said. “The government should not be interfering with that by artificially driving that number up."

Nebraska was also one of the first states to reinstate work-search requirements for the unemployed, back in July — several months before the the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations peaked. Ricketts has taken a more hands-off approach throughout the pandemic than many other states, imposing coronavirus restrictions in public areas and crowded places, but never issuing a statewide mask mandate or stay-at-home order.

Ricketts said the decision to end benefits was based on Nebraska's low hospitalization rate for infected people. Nebraska had 73 people hospitalized as of Sunday, accounting for just 2% of total capacity and down from the record high of 987 in mid-November.

Nebraska has confirmed 223,054 cases and 2,249 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the state's online track portal. The state has vaccinated 53.7% of residents who are at least 16 years old.

Ricketts also rescinded an executive order that lifted weight limits on truckers hauling food, supplies and equipment, and an order that allowed restaurants to offer take-out alcohol. State lawmakers passed a law this year allowing take-out alcohol indefinitely. The old regulations will go back into effect June 1.


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