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Gregoire signs measure boosting benefits

MONDAY, FEB. 16, 2009, 4:28 P.M.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday signed into law a measure boosting benefits for the unemployed, saying that some Washington families are struggling and need immediate help.

“Our goal today is to put in their pockets some much-needed money,” the governor said before signing her first bill this legislative session.

The measure boosts the minimum weekly benefit amount, and adds $45 a week for all jobless workers. 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 Jan. 3, 2010.

Under the federal stimulus plan passed by Congress and awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, those benefits increase even more, by $25 a week.

“When you combine the impact of this bill with that of President Obama and the Congress and what they have done to beef up unemployment benefits in all 50 states, we have a very powerful tool to help our families and our local economies,” Gregoire said.

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 new law also expands 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 as much as 52 weeks of unemployment benefits while going back to school to get skills for a high-demand job, such as nursing.

Also, the law changes a program that allows employers to temporarily reduce workers’ hours, and allows those workers to receive partial unemployment benefits. Currently, the program only allows such workers to receive benefits for 26 weeks; under the new measure, that would increase to a year. Employers would be allowed to enroll as many workers as they want in the program, instead of a minimum of 10 percent of their work force.

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