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Washington gets stimulus; $98 million for joblessness costs

OLYMPIA – The federal government is giving Washington nearly $98 million to help with unemployment insurance costs because of changes the state made to its system.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday modernization efforts approved by the Legislature over the past two years made the state eligible for the money from the Recovery Act.

About a third of it will be used to buy a new computer system to run the unemployment benefits program. The rest will go into the unemployment insurance trust fund to be paid out in benefits and keep unemployment tax rates stable, Gregoire said.

In 2009, the state expanded its unemployment benefits program to include workers who leave their jobs because of “compelling family reasons.” Normally, unemployment benefits are only paid to workers who are fired or laid off, not to those who quit. But the 2009 law allows benefits for people who quit because of major family medical emergencies, domestic abuse or because a spouse is transferred to another job that requires a move.

The latter is important to the spouses of military personnel who are frequently transferred to other bases, Solis said.

This year, the Legislature also changed the rules for unemployed workers who enroll in retraining programs for jobs in new fields. Under the old rules, a person who was unemployed had to be looking for work, or be in a full-time training program and not look for work. New rules allow an eligible worker to receive benefits while working part time and enrolled in a part-time training program. Part-time jobs are often the gateway to full-time jobs, Gregoire said.

About a third of the money will be used to replace the state’s benefits computer system, which is about 30 years old, said Sheryl Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the Employment Security Department. The system is so old it is difficult to reprogram and expensive to fix. A new system will take most of this decade to select and install.

The extra money from the federal government comes several months after the Legislature passed, as the first bill of the session, changes to the system that prevented major increases to unemployment rates this fall for many businesses.

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