Washington state lawmakers approved legislation that would save employers nearly $1 billion in unemployment taxes this year, raise the minimum weekly jobless benefit, and provide benefits to some workers who quit for health reasons.
But some worker advocates said Senate Bill 5061, which passed the House on Friday and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for a signature, didn't go far enough to address workers affected by the pandemic.
The legislation, a top priority for the new session, will blunt what would have been a $1.7 billion increase in employers' unemployment taxes through 2025 that the state would have needed to cover the unexpected costs of unemployment claims during the pandemic.
It reduces by $920 million the taxes employers would have paid in 2021, and also removes from calculations of future tax rates the $1.2 billion in benefits paid to workers during last spring's stay-home period.
The measure raises the minimum weekly unemployment benefit payment for low-wage workers who lose their jobs, from $201 to about $270.
And SB 5061 also allows unemployment benefits to be paid to workers who quit work during a declared public health emergency either because they face a high health risk related to the public health emergency or because they live with high-risk individuals.
"No worker should have to choose between protecting their health, or that of a family member, and ensuring income for basic needs," said Anne Paxton, policy director at the Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project (ULP), which largely supported SB 5061.
The measure, heavily favored by business groups, moved through both chambers with considerable speed and passed by overwhelming and bipartisan margins — 42-7 in the Senate on Wednesday and 89-8 in the House on Friday. A spokesperson for Inslee said the governor would sign the measure next week.
"I think we hit a home run," said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chair of the Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee, who shepherded the measure through the Senate. "I think we really did make tremendous progress with this bill at all levels for all businesses and for some workers, so I think it's a real achievement."
But the ULP and other worker advocates called out what they saw as failings in the bill. One is a provision that, beginning Jan. 2, 2022, prevents jobless workers from receiving more in unemployment benefits than they were earning before being laid off.
Some worker advocates also wanted the legislation to address other problems with the state's unemployment system that have emerged during the pandemic. These include delays in benefits payments and widespread confusion over federal benefits that has led to many claimants being asked to repay benefits already received.
"SB 5061 fails to provide workers who have waited week after week for benefits with any assurance that their claims will be paid on a timely basis — or at all," said Rachel Lauter, executive director of the labor group Working Washington. "It does nothing for tens of thousands of workers who have been sent notices threatening to send them to collections over 'overpayments' of benefits."
Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, who sponsored the legislation in the House, acknowledged in a statement Friday that the measure "does not solve everything," and added that "it's just the beginning of a more focused plan to support workers and small businesses across the state."
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