The "250,000 unemployed in this state are looking for help from this legislature," Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said. This bump in benefits will help unemployed make ends meet while helping to stimulate the economy, he said. The bill provides an additional $45 a week from May until next January, as well as permanently increasing the minimum unemployment benefit from $129 per week to $155.
"A solid majority, if not all, of the recipients that are on unemployment are far more inclined to buy groceries" with that money, said Dave Johnson, executive secretary for the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council and a member of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee. As a result, he said that money will go back into the state’s economy.
The bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 43 to 4, comes in the wake of some of the highest unemployment rates seen in years. Last year 7.1 percent of Washingtonians filed for unemployment, with more than 90,000 people in December alone.
The legislation encompasses three tools to help those unemployed. Along with the increase in benefits, there’s a plan to improve workforce training and shared work programs, both of which would be permanent changes.
The point, said Conway, who is the prime sponsor of the House bill, is to provide a jolt to the economy while helping unemployed workers get back on their feet.
Lawmakers have to work quickly on this bill because it must be signed into law by Feb. 16 to make the bill’s deadline of May 3 when the increases are to go into effect.
The money to fund the increase will come from the state’s unemployment trust fund, which currently holds more than $4 billion.
"We have the strongest trust fund, the most amount of any state in the country. So we’re the envy of, likely, every state in the country,” Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said.
While some opponents of the bill, such as Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, are worried about drawing money out of the trust fund, Kohl-Welles said there is enough money to cover this increase, and, the money will come back to benefit everybody as it will go into the economy as stimulus relief.
"I think the vote in the House really serves as an exclamation point on the bipartisan support of this legislation, and the urgency of this legislation to put money into the hands of those individuals who are in need of it for some basic necessities in their lives," Kohl-Welles said. “It’s been astonishing the speed at which our unemployment rate has increased in this state, as is the case across the country. We need to do this now."
Some of the supporters of the bill have voiced concerns that the money won’t become available until May. Sheryl Hutchison, Employment Security Department communications director, said the increase can't go into effect until at least May, because it will take the department about nine weeks to update its computer system.
The bill passed the House 90 to 2. It received two amendments in the Senate and now goes back to the House.