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23.4 The Government and the Labor Market

Learning Objectives

After you have read this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are common forms of government intervention in labor markets?
  2. Why do governments intervene in labor markets?

The employment and unemployment experience of Europe is quite different from that of the United States. We have developed some frameworks that help us understand the sources of these differences. But we have not yet really addressed the question at the heart of this chapter: what is the impact of different labor market policies in the two places?

Government interventions in the labor market are commonplace in most European countries. In Europe, there are many examples of restrictions on hiring, firing, the closing of plants, and so forth. There are some restrictions of this kind in the United States as well but not to the extent that we observe in Europe. In part this is because public opinion in Europe is more supportive of such regulations, as compared to the United States. For example, in 2003, the French food producer Danone decided to close two unprofitable factories in France. This news, which would almost certainly have been unexceptionable in the United States, led to massive protests, boycotts, and condemnation by politicians.

Europe is not the only part of the world in which governments intervene directly in labor markets. Labor regulations have recently been under consideration in China as well.Joseph Kahn and David Barboza, “China Passes a Sweeping Labor Law,” New York Times, World Business, June 30, 2007, accessed June 30, 2011,

The new labor contract law, enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, requires employers to provide written contracts to their workers, restricts the use of temporary laborers and makes it harder to lay off employees.

Because of China’s communist history, most workers are not represented by labor unions. It is the government that steps in to represent workers. The need to do so is enhanced by the increasing share of private rather than publically owned firms in China’s economy.

We finish this chapter by considering some of the policies that have been adopted by governments in an attempt to influence the functioning of labor markets. We are interested both in why policymakers think these policies are a good idea and in the effect of these policies on the economy.

Unemployment Insurance

In Figure 23.6 "Worker Flows in the United States", we described the flow of workers between situations of employment, unemployment, and out of the labor force. We also argued that having a flexible labor market in which people can change jobs easily may more than compensate for the fact that people may sometimes spend time in unemployment.

But this is abstract economist-speak. People who lose their jobs, even if only temporarily, see their livelihood vanish. The reallocations of jobs that are beneficial to the economy as a whole may be costly, even devastating, to the affected individuals. For this reason, most developed economies have some kind of unemployment insurance to protect their workers. Unemployment insurance means that, if you are unemployed, you will receive some income from the government. Exactly how long you receive this income for and exactly how much you get depends on where you live. Some countries have much more generous unemployment insurance than others. Even if you live in the United States, the amount of insurance varies from state to state.

When it comes to buying car insurance, home insurance, or life insurance, households typically decide for themselves how much insurance to purchase. It is not a decision made by the government. Unemployment insurance is different: it is provided by the government rather than by private companies. This insurance is funded by taxes levied on firms and workers together.

The reason unemployment insurance is provided by the government is because it might be difficult for private firms to provide this coverage. Private insurance companies rely on the fact that not everyone makes claims on insurance at the same time. For example, a provider of home insurance knows that 20 percent of the houses that they insure will not burn down in the same month. But in a recession, the high rate of unemployment means that a lot of people claim benefits at the same time. If private insurers were providing the benefits, insurance companies might go bankrupt, leaving workers without insurance. The government, by contrast, can use its ability to borrow, so it can finance unemployment insurance in one year from tax receipts it will receive in the future.

In the United States, the amount of insurance you receive typically depends on how much you have earned over the past year. A rule of thumb is that workers get about 25 percent of their wage income paid back through unemployment insurance. Benefits are available for only 26 weeks, although this is usually extended when the economy is in a recession. Other countries have much more generous programs.“The Ins and Outs of Long-Term Unemployment,” OECD Employment Outlook 2002, accessed June 30, 2011, Table 4.1 provides an extensive cross-country comparison. In Denmark, for example, unemployment benefits are about 90 percent of labor income and can last for up to 4 years.

Unemployment insurance has two main effects. First, and most obviously, this insurance makes it easier for unemployed people to sustain their level of consumption until they regain employment. Thus this form of insurance helps support consumption smoothingThe idea that households like to keep their flow of consumption relatively steady over time, smoothing over income changes.. Second, unemployment insurance affects the incentives of the unemployed. If individuals know they will receive some income even when they are unemployed, they are more likely to be willing to search extensively for good jobs. Instead of feeling the need to take the first job that comes along, people can wait longer and search longer for a job that is a really good match.

Unemployment insurance therefore contributes to labor market flexibility. It is, however, tricky to decide just how much unemployment insurance should be provided. After all, if unemployment insurance is too generous, then unemployed workers will be tempted to defer getting a new job for a long time—perhaps indefinitely. For this reason, governments usually restrict the period of time for which a worker can collect insurance to provide an incentive for them to search for a job.

Firing Costs

Imagine that you are the human resources (HR) manager of a firm in the United States. Suppose that the demand for your firm’s product has declined, so you need to lay off some workers. You will be obliged to provide two weeks’ notice to them. In many cases, that will be the end of your firm’s obligations, although workers may sometimes be entitled to additional severance payments as part of their employment contracts. In the United States, employment contracts are largely a private matter between a firm and its workers. A firm cannot fire a worker for a discriminatory reason, but otherwise the government stays out of the contractual agreements among workers and firms. According to the Department of Labor, “In general, if the reason for termination is not because of discrimination on these bases, or because of the employee’s protected status as a whistleblower, or because they were involved in a complaint filed under one of the laws enforced by the Department of Labor (see Whistleblower and Non-Retaliation Protections), then the termination is subject only to any private contract between the employer and employee or a labor contract between the employer and those covered by the labor contract.”“Termination,” US Department of Labor, accessed June 30, 2011,

In other countries, matters are not so simple. Imagine now that you are the HR manager of a firm in Portugal. Your product demand has fallen off, and you want to reduce output. In contrast to the United States, you may not be able to simply lay off workers. In Portugal, and in many other countries, there are numerous laws that make it costly to dismiss workers.

If you want to design a public policy to reduce the unemployment rate, it is tempting to make it harder to fire workers. If it is difficult to fire people, then fewer individuals will move from employment into unemployment. As we discussed earlier, though, spells of unemployment are sometimes necessary if workers are to move from less productive jobs to more productive ones. An increase in firing costs makes the labor market less flexible, so the economy will adjust less effectively to changes in workers’ productivities.

There is also a more subtle unintended consequence of firing costs. If it is harder to fire workers, then firms become more reluctant to hire workers. Neither firms nor workers know the true value of a match in advance. When you take a part-time job, your productivity at that job and job satisfaction cannot be known ahead of time. Suppose there was a law that stated that once you accept a job you must stay with that employer for five years. You would certainly become very careful about deciding to accept a job offer. Exactly the same applies to firms. If the cost of laying off a worker is very high, then the firm will simply not hire the worker. A policy designed to promote employment can actively discourage it.

The French government, as we saw at the beginning of the chapter, made an attempt to introduce labor market reforms based on exactly this reasoning and tried to make the argument that we have just outlined to the protesters in the streets. If there were more flexibility in the firm’s employment decision, they argued, firms would become more willing to hire young workers. This would help to reduce youth unemployment. The following New York Times article tells what happened next.Elaine Sciolino, “Chirac Will Rescind Labor Law That Caused Wide French Riots,” New York Times, April 11, 2006, accessed June 30, 2011,

President Jacques Chirac crumbled under pressure from students, unions, business executives and even some of his own party leaders on Monday, announcing that he would rescind a disputed youth labor law intended to make hiring more flexible. The retreat was a humiliating political defeat for both Mr. Chirac and his political protégé, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin […]

It also laid bare the deep popular resistance to liberalizing France’s rigid labor market, and makes any new economic reform politically impossible before a new government is in place, and perhaps not even then.

“Dead and buried,” is how Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the leftist union Force Ouvrière, described the fate of the labor law. “The goal has been achieved.”


The new law was intended to give employers a simpler way of hiring workers under 26 on a trial basis without immediately exposing companies to the cumbersome and costly benefits that make hiring and firing such a daunting enterprise. Opposition to the law reflects the deep-rooted fear among the French of losing their labor and social protection in a globalized world.


In its initial form, the law allowed employers to fire new employees within two years without cause. In the face of mounting pressure, Mr. Chirac watered it down so that employers could subject new employees to only a yearlong trial period, and then would have to offer a reason for any dismissal.

Students and unions, bolstered by support from the opposition Socialists and even some business leaders, had vowed to continue their street protests until the law was rescinded.

The Socialists were quick to proclaim victory on Monday. “This is an unquestionable retreat,” Francois Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party, told reporters. “It is a grand success for the young and an impressive victory for the unity of the unions.”


Restrictions on Hours

Another tempting policy to increase employment is to limit the number of hours an employee can work. Suppose that a firm needs 1,200 hours of labor time a week. If a typical worker works 40 hours per week, then the firm will need to hire 30 workers. But if the government were to legislate a 30-hour workweek, then the firm would need to hire 40 workers instead.

This idea of “spreading work” through restrictions on hours was part of the response in the United States to the Great Depression. During the early 1930s, the US government instituted such restrictions under the heading of the “National Economic Recovery Act.” The idea persists to the present day. In France, the government passed a law limiting hours worked to 35 hours per week (for workers at large firms) starting in the year 2000. In Germany, the government operates a policy called Kurzarbeit, whereby it subsidizes firms who retain workers for shorter hours in times of recession.

One problem with such policies is that restrictions on hours reduce the value of a match between a worker and a firm. Consequently, fewer matches will be formed, and more workers will be unemployed. Another problem is that it reduces flexibility in the labor market, which leads to less efficient functioning of the economy.

As a concrete example, consider auto manufacturers in the years following the Great Depression in the United States. This industry had substantial variations in hours worked over the model year. During times of high demand for cars (the spring), factories and their workers were working overtime to meet the increased demand. Restrictions on hours meant that overtime working had to be replaced by increased hiring. Firms that wanted to produce more output had to hire and train new workers. This was costly, so firms sometimes found it was better simply to accept that they would not meet the high demand.

In the case of France’s 35-hour workweek, matters were a bit more complicated. The mandated short workweek imposed some rigidity on firms. However, during the negotiations for this change in the laws, French labor unions agreed to some other changes that improved the flexibility of the labor market. France later moved away from the 35-hour workweek by permitting firms and workers to agree to longer work hours if they wish.

Key Takeaways

  • Most governments provide workers with unemployment insurance. In many countries, governments also impose costs on firms that fire workers and also restrict hours worked.
  • One rationale for intervention by governments is to provide insurance to workers that is not available in private markets. Governments also take action in an attempt to increase employment rates.

Checking Your Understanding

  1. Can a firm in the United States fire a worker without permission of the government?
  2. What was one of the arguments in France for restricting the hours worked per week?