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Senate passes bills that would limit unemployment safety net

The state Senate passed two bills placing increased restrictions on unemployment benefits in West Virginia.

“When we have a low-low unemployment rate and we can see ‘Help wanted’ signs everywhere throughout this state, then we want to be able to get people back into the workforce,” said Senate President Craig Blair, making a case on MetroNews’ “Talkline” that the changes would be incentives to land a new job.

A majority of Senators voted in favor of two bills today, voting down amendments offered by members of the Democratic minority. Both bills, seen as a matching pair, now go to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Republican supporters of the bills said changing the policies will give employers a financial break, allowing them to hire more people. Some Democrats argued against the bills by telling stories of losing their financial security when they lost jobs.

Senate Bill 2 would limit the eligibility period for benefits to 12 weeks if the unemployment rate is below 5.5 percent. The rate would go up an additional week for each half-percent the unemployment rate goes up, to a maximum of 20 weeks.

That bill passed 20-14.

Charles Trump

“I think indexing of the unemployment benefits, the duration of those benefits, is an important component of looking forward, planning for our future in West Virginia,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

“What’s magic about 26 weeks? Half of a year. It’s an arbitrary number that was picked by a previous Legislature.”

Owens Brown

Senator Owens Brown, D-Ohio, said that’s easy to say if you’re not unemployed.

“Twenty-six weeks is not that long,” he said. “I want you to get out there and find a job in 12 weeks.”

Mike Romano

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said elected officials share a goal of helping people get back to work. “Who wants to be on unemployment?” he said. “We all want everybody to go back to work.”

But Romano doubted the two policies will accomplish that goal.

“I want some evidence these two bills are going to improve unemployment in this state. I don’t want to just hope it’s going to do that,” he said. “Reducing the number of weeks is going to force people off the unemployment roles, but is it going to reduce unemployment? Is it going to improve participation?”

Senate Bill 3 would require four specific job search activities a week for people receiving unemployment benefits. Examples include registering with job placement offices, completing applications for employers “reasonably expected to have job openings,” participating in job fairs or taking a civil service exam.

People who fail to provide an accounting of the work search activities could be ruled ineligible for benefits.

That bill also has a halfway measure that would allow people to work a part time job, up to 30 hours a week, while receiving full unemployment — a provision meant to help people continue looking for full-time work.

Senators voted 23-11 in favor of that bill.

Tom Takubo

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said the bill is aimed at assuring good-faith, consistent efforts by job seekers. Takubo said that while some people drawing unemployment are motivated to find work, others may be less aggressive.

“When somebody has lost their job, that’s a devastating thing to go through,” Takubo said.

“What this bill does is say we want to help you get back on your feet, we want to support you, but we want you to actually get back into the workforce.”

Hannah Geffert

Senator Hannah Geffert, D-Berkeley, contended some unemployed West Virginians would lack the computer connectivity to meet the requirements.

“I don’t think most of the people in our state are trying to game the system. They’re really trying to comply with the rules,” she said.

Stephen Baldwin

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, contended the bills do nothing to improve barriers to employment that actually keep people out of the workforce.

“The bill before us, which apparently tries to put people back to work, doesn’t have anything to do with those real barriers,” he said.

Eric Tarr

But Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said the changes would reduce unemployment insurance costs for employers, lowering barriers for businesses.

“What really improves having access to childcare and transportation is having employers very close to you,” Tarr said.


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