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Senate to consider bills to restrict unemployment benefits

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Senate to consider bills to restrict unemployment benefits

Feb 24, 2024 | 3:50 pm ET
By Lori Kersey
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Senate to consider bills to restrict unemployment benefits
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Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, addresses the Senate on Saturday. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

The state Senate will consider legislation to restrict the amount of time a worker can claim unemployment benefits and cap the weekly amount they receive.

The Senate Finance Committee met Saturday and advanced Senate Bill 840 and Senate Bill 841.

Senate Bill 840 would limit the maximum number of weeks a person may receive unemployment benefits depending on the state’s average unemployment rate.

If the state’s unemployment rate were below 5.5%, as it was as of December 2023,  unemployment benefits would be capped at 12 weeks.  The number of weeks allowed would increase incrementally based on the employment rate to a max of 20 weeks when the unemployment rate is at or above 9%.

Senate Bill 841 would lower the maximum weekly benefit rate from 66 and ⅔ of the average weekly wage in West Virginia to 55 percent of the average weekly wage in West Virginia, with a maximum cap of $550 per week.

The state currently allows workers unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks.

According to Workforce West Virginia, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.8% in December.

Scott Adkins, acting commissioner of Workforce West Virginia, testified that the state’s unemployment compensation fund currently has more than $387 million. According to projections from the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics, Adkins said, a major recession would bankrupt the fund in about 18 months.

The 2008 recession “crushed” the trust fund, he said.

“We as an agency, were not proactive,” Adkins said. “The Legislature, we didn’t do anything to fix it. So we ended up in a situation where we were here asking the Legislature for a piece of legislation that will allow us to borrow from the rainy day fund.”

Adkins said the agency borrowed $50 million from the rainy day fund on one occasion and $30 million on another to shore up the fund.

Adkins said the fund is “not in trouble today” but officials are trying to be proactive because “we’re going in the wrong direction on that trust fund balance.”

In separate statements, West Virginia Democrats and the West Virginia ALF-CIO noted that the committee had passed the bills not long after Allegheny Wood Products announced it would close and lay off hundreds of West Virginia workers and within two weeks of Cleveland-Cliffs laying off about 900 workers in the Northern Panhandle.

Democratic chairman Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, compared  Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, putting the bills on Saturday’s agenda to a convenience store price gouging during a state of emergency or a gas station owner raising the gas price during a power outage. He questioned Tarr’s motives, considering the health of the state’s unemployment compensation fund and West Virginia’s low unemployment rate.

“It’s as if the misery of losing their jobs wasn’t enough,” Pushkin said in the statement. “Sen. Tarr had to kick these workers in the teeth while they’re worrying about how to make their mortgage payments and put food on the table for their children.”

West Virginia AFL-CIO President Josh Sword called the committee’s actions in passing the bills “quite possibly the most heartless act I’ve seen in my 25 years of representing working people at the Capitol.

“To take earned benefits away from nearly 2,000 hard-working people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own is unimaginably cruel and completely unnecessary,” Sword said.

Sword said the West Virginia AFL-CIO and affiliates would urge members to  contact lawmakers  and tell them to reject attempts to take away unemployment benefits.

Tarr did not return a message left with his office or through a spokeswoman for the Senate.

The bills will next go to the full Senate for consideration.