OLYMPIA _ With unemployment levels nationwide at the highest rates since 1992, Washington’s House of Representatives on Friday voted to temporarily boost benefits for jobless workers by $45 a week.
“An extra 45 bucks can mean a meal’s on the table for the kids,” said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla.
The House overwhelmingly approved the plan, 91 to 2. All local lawmakers voted for it, except Rep. John Driscoll, one of four House members excused from the Friday session.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expects the Senate o approve the same plan next week. Gov. Gregoire is expected to quickly sign it into law.
“Our understanding is that if we’re able to get this to the governor’s desk by Feb. 16th, that the benefit increase could start in May for unemployed workers,” Brown said. It would last through Jan. 3, 2010.
National unemployment stands at 7.6 percent, up nearly half a percent from last month. Washington’s jobless rate last month was 7.1 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Spokane, it was 7.4 percent.
“Behind all these numbers are real people, and they need help,” Chopp, D-Seattle, told reporters Friday at the capitol.
Current unemployment insurance benefits in Washington range from $129 a week to $541. The state pays those benefits for up to 26 weeks; federal emergency aid can extend payments for up to 33 weeks more. House Speaker Frank Chopp said the federal government is also considering boosting benefits by $25 a week.
“But we don’t want to wait for them,” he said. “We’ve got to help people right now.”
The change would mean a total of nearly $1,000 more for many workers. And proponents are confident that jobless workers will spend the money quickly in the community, helping businesses.
“They don’t put it into stocks and bonds, that’s for sure,” said Chopp.
House Bill 1906 also allows up to a year of state unemployment benefits for some workers who are retraining for high-demand jobs. And it expands and extends a program under which companies can temporarily reduce workers’ hours while they get partial unemployment benefits.
Unlike in many other state’s Washington’s $4.2 billion unemployment insurance trust fund is healthy, with enough money to pay benefits for more than 21 months during a recession. The cash comes from payments by employers. The changes approved by the House Friday would pull about $200 million out of the fund.
Lawmakers said a second unemployment insurance bill is also on the way to help businesses. Brown said that bill, which will come from the Senate, would consist of a reduction in the rates that businesses pay, saving them hundreds of millions of dollars over 5 years.
The challenge, Chopp said, is balancing immediate relief for jobless workers with the long-term health of the trust fund. Even tapping the fund for rate relief and slightly larger benefits, Brown said, Washington will still have one of the healthiest unemployment funds in the nation.
Seven states are now borrowing money from the federal government to pay for unemployment benefits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Michigan, one of two states where unemployment now exceeds 10 percent of the workforce, state officials have borrowed $1 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits.
Some business leaders and Republican lawmakers worry about what will happen to the if the recession and joblessness sharply worsen or last for years. Shrinking the trust fund too fast, they say, could trigger automatic rate increases if things are still bad a year from now. And they worry about the long term costs of such economic stimulus efforts.
“Do we want to keep encumbering the future, the longer-term future, because we don’t know what to do about the next quarter?” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, one of only two lawmakers to vote against the plan Friday.
Other Republicans say the reason the trust fund is so healthy is that employers have been overpaying for years.
“Its with that great generosity that we’re able to do this,” said Rep. Cary Condotta, R-E. Wenatchee. According to the Washington Policy Center, Washington has the 5th highest unemployment payments in the country and the second-highest unemployment taxes. The group’s Carl Gipson says that lawmakers are essentially “gambling” that things don’t stay too bad for very long.
Still, Condotta and most other lawmakers said that jobless workers can certainly use the extra $45 a week now.
“It’s awfully nice to have a job right now,” said Walsh, a restaurant owner. Like other lawmakers, she has already heard a lot heartbreaking stories in hearings this month.
“Working on those committees,” Walsh said, “I should have stock in Kleenex.”