April 2, 2005 in City

Benefits for jobless revisited

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 
The Spokesman-Review photo


(Full-size photo)

OLYMPIA – Two years after sharply cutting unemployment benefits for many seasonal workers, the state House of Representatives voted Friday to reverse course, saying that the changes were too harsh for many families.

“Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day. And what more appropriate day to correct a foolish mistake we made two years ago,” said Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington.

Because of the reduced benefits, Democrats said that many seasonal workers’ families are turning to food banks and struggling to hold on to their homes.

Republicans countered that Washington’s unemployment insurance system was never intended to be a welfare system for people who choose to work in seasonal jobs. The state’s unemployment benefits – among the most generous in the nation – are being abused by many people, some lawmakers said.

“You can work all summer and snowboard all winter,” said Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee.

He predicted that the change, which must still be approved by the Senate and governor, will end up bankrupting the unemployment insurance system.

Rep. Jim Buck said that seasonal workers make up a small portion of the state’s work force.

“The other 86 percent of us that work full time, all the time, are subsidizing these people,” said Buck, R-Joyce.

The bill amends a controversial late-night compromise in 2002, when Republicans and some Democrats, including Gov. Gary Locke, joined forces to overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance system. Businesses – particularly the Olympia heavyweight Boeing – had complained for years that the system was unfairly burdensome for many employers.

The reforms included a controversial change in how a worker’s unemployment check is calculated. For years, a worker’s benefit had been based on the worker’s two highest-paid quarters of the year. So a construction worker who made $20,000 in the spring and summer and nothing in the fall and winter would get the same unemployment benefits as someone who made $40,000 working year-round.

The 2002 bill, passed over furious objections from organized labor and some liberal Democrats, phased in a new formula, so that benefits are now based on pay for the previous entire year.

The new calculation is a drastic change for seasonal workers, who work part of the year and rely on unemployment insurance to get them through the off-season. Farmworkers, construction crews, forest fire fighters and part-time community college faculty all saw their unemployment benefits drop sharply, Democrats said Friday.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said he met a Yakima farmworker who is trying to support his family now on a check of $126 a week.

Rep. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle, told lawmakers about a construction worker struggling to get by.

“His wife’s wedding ring is currently in a pawnshop,” McDermott said, urging his colleagues to change the law “and put that ring back on his wife’s finger, where it belongs.”

The bill, EHB 2255, would revert to averaging a worker’s two highest-paid quarters. But it would only apply for the next two years, while lawmakers, labor and business hash out a longer-term fix. To pay for the change, benefits for everyone else will be reduced 4 percent. The bill also taps about $10 million in one-time federal money.

Boeing supports the change, although many of the state’s business groups don’t.

By undoing the much-touted reform within two years, many Republicans predicted, Washington is hurting its credibility with businesses that rely on predictability in such things as regulations, costs and tax incentives.

Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, called the bill “a tax and regulatory whiplash” that could hurt the state’s economy for years. The best unemployment help, several Republicans said, is a job.

“Listen to that giant sucking sound of businesses going across the border to Idaho, Oregon or Montana,” Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, said. “This is not just a nail in the coffin of business. This is taking a sledgehammer and pounding a railroad spike into that coffin.”

Democrats responded that it does the economy little good if the state’s unemployment insurance rules are helping push families into homelessness and poverty.

“This is not charity. This is supporting our economy,” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane. “The money flows. This keeps people working. This keeps people spending.”

“It’s not April Fools’ for people who are losing their homes and losing their families,” said Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup. “This just fixes a bill that went too far.”

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