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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature sends unemployment insurance relief bill to governor

The Washington state Capitol in Olympia. New laws governing school mascots, plastic silverware and voting rights for convicted felons are set to go into effect Saturday, the first day of the new year.   (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A bill that would increase the minimum weekly benefit for unemployment workers and prevent tax increases for businesses passed the Washington State Legislature on Friday, a rare quick passage less than three weeks since the start of the session.

It’s the first of many COVID-19 quick-action bills the Legislature hopes to pass in the coming weeks.

In an effort to get relief to businesses and unemployed people soon, the state House of Representatives passed the measure Friday 89-8, less than 48 hours after the Senate passed it 42-7. The bill was brought directly to the House floor without a committee hearing this week.

During the floor debate, Democrats looked to pass quick relief for businesses and unemployed workers while Republicans argued the bill didn’t go far enough.

“We’re not going to solve it overnight, but we are going to begin the journey,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. ”We begin the journey here.”

The bill, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, increases the weekly benefit amount for the lowest-wage workers from 15% to 20%, meaning those making between $21,000 and $27,800 will receive a larger share of their weekly wages in benefits.

Businesses would also see relief from some unemployment taxes, including on all benefits from the week ending March 28, 2020 through the week ending May 30, 2020.

The bill also prevents an automatic unemployment tax increase of $1.7 billion from 2021 to 2025, including $920 million this year, which reduces employers’ bills beginning in April.

During future public health emergencies, high-risk workers who cannot work from home during a public health emergency can quit and receive benefits. Charges for employers who shut down due to a public health emergency are also waived.

The quick push to pass the bill frustrated some Republicans who were disappointed in the lack of committee hearing it got in the House, adding if they had time, they could’ve provided even more relief.

“While this is providing a very real benefit to the employer, we could’ve done so much more,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said during the floor debate.

House Republicans proposed multiple amendments on the bill during the floor debate, but all three failed on party lines. If any had passed, the bill would’ve had to be debated again in the Senate.

“We have to do more than use a Band-Aid,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “We need to do more. We need to do much more.”

Although some Republicans did vote in favor, some said their frustrations could’ve been alleviated if there was time to discuss it in committee.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, voted in favor but said the bill could’ve been better if the amendments passed.

“There was a negotiation,” he said, “but it was a negotiation we weren’t a part of.”

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the bill provides the Legislature with the opportunity to revisit the issue later this session, as well as in the next two sessions.

The bill now heads to Inslee for final signature. If he signs, it will go into effect immediately.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.