OLYMPIA — The Legislature moved a step closer Thursday to passing a plan to temporarily increase the state’s weekly unemployment benefits.
The Senate passed the measure on a 43-4 vote. A minor amendment sends it back to the House, which is expected to pass it Friday before sending it to Gov. Chris Gregoire. Gregoire is expected to sign the measure on Monday.
“Our families are struggling to just make ends meet,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “We need to step up to this occasion and make sure that our families in need have some security.”
A record-setting 90,331 new applications for unemployment benefits were filed in December, and the state’s unemployment rate has topped 7 percent.
The bill would boost the minimum weekly benefit amount from $129 to $155, and all unemployed workers would receive an additional $45 a week. That makes the minimum payment $200 per week, and the maximum $586.
The temporary increases would take effect May 3 and end with claims filed on or before Jan. 3, 2010.
Nearly 142,000 people are getting jobless benefits in Washington — up 93 percent from last year.
Gregoire has proposed using $400 million from the state’s $4 billion unemployment trust fund, with half being used to pay benefits and the remainder to help businesses by temporarily reducing the taxes they pay to the unemployment benefits fund.
The measure that passed Thursday would also expand eligibility for a program that allows people to receive unemployment benefits while in a job training program. Currently, that program applies only to dislocated workers from distressed industries such as timber or fishing. The measure would add low-wage workers, National Guard members, honorably discharged military personnel and disabled workers to those who can collect up to 52 weeks of unemployment benefits while going back to school to get skills for a high-demand job, such as nursing.
Also, the bill changes a program that allows employers to temporarily reduce workers’ hours and allows the workers to receive partial unemployment benefits. Currently, the program only allows such workers to receive benefits for 26 weeks; under the measure, that would increase to a year. Employers would be allowed to enroll as many workers they want in the program, instead of a minimum of 10 percent of their work force.
All but four of the Senate’s 18 Republicans voted in support of the measure, but many said they were worried about the state’s unemployment trust fund getting tapped too severely.
“Currently, the fund is very healthy, in a large part due to overcharging employers over the past year and a half,” said Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake. “I want to make sure that we protect workers, and we need to protect workers by protecting the integrity of this trust fund.”
The four who voted against the bill were Sens. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, Bob Morton, R-Orient, Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Val Stevens, R-Arlington.
Hewitt, the Senate minority leader, said he was worried that if the unemployment rate continues to rise, the trust fund could be run down and that businesses could face higher taxes to replenish it.
Hewitt said his no vote was “not because I don’t want to protect workers, but I think we have to protect the system.”
Supporters of the measure noted that the state trust fund can currently pay benefits for more than 21 months. Under the measure, with current economic projections presented by House leaders, the fund could drop to 14 1/2 months of benefits. Even in a severe recession, Democrats say there would be a minimum of 8 1/2 months padding in the fund over the next three years.
“The worst-case calculations do not come up with any kind of reserve drop to the level where it would trigger increased employers’ taxes,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent. “That will not happen on our watch.”
Also Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed a measure that would give a business and occupation tax credit to businesses with 10 employees or less. That measure now heads to the House.