West Virginia legislators are trying once again to make long overdue improvements to the state’s unemployment benefits program. The Senate on Monday passed and sent to the House SB 59 that makes significant changes at Workforce West Virginia, which administers the program.
The bill mirrors legislation that passed the Senate last year, but then failed in the House.
Currently, someone who loses their job through no fault of their own is eligible for up to 26 weeks of benefits. Under this bill, the number of weeks would be indexed to the state’s unemployment rate from the previous quarter.
For example, if the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent or less, the maximum benefit is 12 weeks. One week would be added for each one-half percentage point increase in the jobless rate up to nine percent (and higher) when the benefit is capped at 20 weeks.
Workforce West Virginia reports that the average length of time an individual was on unemployment in 2022 was eight weeks. The state’s jobless rate was 3.5 percent in November, the most recent figure available from Workforce, so workers are in demand across the state.
The bill also increases the job search requirements. Currently, individuals on unemployment only have to self-report one job search a week. That requirement would be raised to four per week with documentation that will be cross-checked by Workforce. Participation in job training and work-related networking count toward work search activities.
Workforce Commissioner Scott Adkins testified before a legislative committee last week that the beefed up reporting requirements are necessary. “Under our current code, all it says you have to do is a work search. It’s not defined. It’s self-attested to,” he said. “We’re not necessarily required to verify whether that job search occurred or not. A lot of people—I hate to say it—beat the system.”
One of the key changes in the bill allows individuals to work part-time while on unemployment as long as the amount they earn does not exceed their weekly benefit. Currently, what an individual makes while on unemployment is subtracted from their benefit. That discourages work and tempts individuals to get paid off the books. Allowing part-time work while maintaining benefits encourages people to work and improves the chances of full-time employment.
Fraud is always an issue in unemployment. The legislation beefs up the program integrity section by requiring Workforce to crosscheck jobless roles with state death records monthly, and to more rigorously check unemployment claimants to ensure their identity.
Employers have an important stake in this. They pay for the insurance program—the bill comes to around $200 million a year in West Virginia—and the state has an obligation to run the program efficiently.
That means staying true to the mission, which isn’t welfare. Unemployment benefits are temporary financial cash benefits for eligible workers while they are between jobs and actively looking for work. SB 59 ensures that Workforce can more effectively carry out that responsibility, while allowing individuals to stay in the workforce on a part-time basis while they look for full-time employment.