Inslee Signs Unemployment Insurance Tax Cut, Boost in Jobless Benefits to Help Those Hurt by COVID-19

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Gov. Jay Inslee Monday put his signature on a bill that slashes a scheduled hike in unemployment insurance for businesses and also expands jobless benefits and protections during the pandemic.

Senate Bill 5061 is one of several lawmakers are quickly moving this legislative session in order to help Washington residents and businesses hurt by the pandemic and ensuing restrictions on commerce and daily life.

"And I'm very happy we've done this early in the session, because this really, certainly is needed," said Inslee during the bill-signing event. "We need businesses to have confidence."

The governor signed the bill at an 11:30 a.m. news conference.

The legislation is intended to help with what would have been a $1.7 billion increase in unemployment taxes for employers through 2025.

That increase was meant to fund the massive boost in unemployment claims filed during the pandemic as businesses were closed and commerce dropped off.

The bill slashes the tax employers were set to pay in 2021 by $920 million. And it gets rid of calculations on future tax rates regarding the $1.2 billion in worker benefits given out during the stay-home period last spring at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

With the bill signed, April tax payments for the first quarter of the year can avoid the steep increases, said bill sponsor Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, during the news conference.

Additionally, SB 5061 increases the minimum weekly unemployment benefit to about $270 for low-wage workers who lose their positions. That is up from $201.

The measure also allows unemployment benefits for employees who quit jobs during a declared public health emergency, if they face a high health risk related to that emergency or if they live with individuals in the high-risk category.

Inslee was joined remotely during the news conference by Keiser and co-sponsor Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, as well as Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, who worked on the legislation in the House.

The bill passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan majorities.

Lawmakers are advancing other bills to give aid during the pandemic, including a $2.2 billion measure to increase contact tracing and vaccine distribution, and aid renters, schools and small businesses.

That legislation, House Bill 1368, is funded mostly by federal aid from relief packages approved by Congress, as well about $440 million from the state budget reserves. Last week, HB 1368 passed off the House floor, and then was approved in a Senate committee vote.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 5272, waives for one year liquor license fees for establishments like distilleries, taverns and restaurants, to help the economic hit to those businesses. Senate lawmakers approved that bill last week.

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