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Labor organizations push back on unemployment bill passed in session’s final hours

West Virginia labor organizations are deeply concerned about an unemployment safety net bill that popped up late in the legislative session, changed multiple times and finally passed in the last hours of the final night.

The last couple of days of the legislative session were characterized by extended breaks for behind-the-scenes negotiations. Lawmakers quietly but openly talked about political horse trading over the unemployment bill affecting other bills.

Josh Sword

“Using bullying tactics that included holding hostage a tax cut for West Virginia retirees, and pay raises for state police, teachers and school service personnel, members of the Senate leadership proved they will stop at nothing to create instability and unpredictability for people who lose their jobs due to no fault of their own,” said Josh Sword, executive director of the West Virginia AFL-CIO.

“It’s disturbing that people who are supposed to be leading the Legislature with the goal of helping improve West Virginians’ lives would instead spend all their time and energy on hurting working people.”

The latest version of the bill freezes employer contributions to the unemployment trust fund at $9,500.

For people who are unemployed, the bill sets a maximum benefit of $662 and keeps the maximum number of weeks at 26. That also represents a freeze of current benefits.

The bill would require at least four work search activities a week such as registering with the state’s labor exchange system or taking a civil service exam.

The changes would become effective July 1.

State officials said the bill could add stability to the unemployment trust fund, which has a current balance of about $390 million. They cited modeling that showed if West Virginia averaged 10 percent unemployment then the trust fund could be wiped out in 91 weeks — which is just shy of two years.

Evan Worrell

As the bill was up for passage and debated for about an hour Saturday night on the House floor, Delegate Evan Worrell argued the changes are unnecessary and too last-second to be considered responsible. He said the bill had gone through five iterations this year during its rollicking journey through the legislative process.

“Now we have the current amendment drop, Day 60, an hour ago to find out what this bill does,” said Worrell, R-Cabell. “The worst part is, we don’t have a problem. There is nothing that needs fixed here. Now we’ve heard projections and how this fund is going to drop. That is not true.”

The current system, he said, “is tied to the economic factors of West Virginia. As West Virginians make more, this fund has triggers to change it. That’s a good thing.”

With the new policy, critics said, the amounts being paid out to people who lose their jobs would be locked in, not changing even if economic conditions like inflation evolve. Changing the rates would require acts of future legislators.

Debate in the state Senate focused on some of the main points.

Eric Nelson

Senator Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said the policies in the bill would help stabilize West Virginia’s unemployment system.

“It’s there for the stability of the fund. It’s there for the certainty to those who are unfortunate and lose there jobs. And then there’s the predictability for our employers,” Nelson said.

Mike Caputo

In the Capitol Rotunda, Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said the bill was unnecessary and rushed.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” Caputo said. “It’s as fictious as anything I’ve ever seen. The unemployment trust fund is as healthy as it’s ever been. If there’s future forecasts or problems we need to talk about, well, let’s do that. Let’s not rush through.

“When we rush these bills through at the final hour, just because someone needs to check a box, because some lobbying group is down here pounding the halls for this bill, it’s just not good policy.”

Caputo said workers need to be assured of an unemployment trust fund in good shape. But he said that wasn’t the evidence in this case.

“Look, I’ll be the first to tell you, if the trust fund’s in trouble I want to make sure it’s healthy because if my guys get laid off I want them to have unemployment. I don’t want the trust fund to be broke,” he said.

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