Briana Heaney Published

Bill That Greatly Reduces Unemployment Benefits Advances

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The Senate advanced two bills Monday that would lower unemployment benefits for out of work West Virginians. 

Currently people can receive 26 weeks of benefits, and a maximum weekly benefit of $624 if they lose their job through no fault of their own; meaning they were separated from their jobs due to a lack of available work. 

Senate Bill 840 would reduce the maximum amount to $550 dollars a week. 

Senate Bill 841 reduces the duration of benefits. It works on a tiered system based on statewide unemployment numbers. If the statewide unemployment number is under 5 percent — which it currently is — then the maximum benefit duration would be 12 weeks, cutting it down by more than half. 

The maximum benefit under the bill is 20 weeks if there is a severe recession with an unemployment rate of 9 percent. 

Sponsor of Senate Bill 840, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said this bill is to help secure the longevity of the unemployment fund. 

“This preserves our unemployment fund for the future,” Tarr said. “If we do not do something now, to go in and fix this unemployment fund, what’s going to happen is unemployment services will become unavailable in the future. That’s just a matter of math.”

However Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy says that the fund is healthier than ever.  

“Our unemployment fund is at one of the highest balances ever on record,” Allen said. 

On Saturday, in the Senate Finance Committee, Jeff Green from WorkForce West Virginia testified that currently the fund could sustain a 10 percent unemployment rate in the state for 91 weeks before all the funds were exhausted. 

Allen says that the state has not seen a recession like that in more than 30 years. 

“The last time West Virginia had an unemployment rate over 10 percent in a sustained period was more than 30 years ago in 1992,” Allen said.   

This all comes shortly after Allegheny Wood Products announced it was closing and laying off hundreds of workers, and the Cleveland-Cliffs tin mill laid off 900 workers last month. 

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, objected to the bills being advanced. 

“This is a bill that reduces unemployment benefits across the state with the recent happenings,” Marion.  “And the news that we’ve heard in Weirton, and in the wood products plant. I think it’s a horrible time to do this. Mr. President.” 

Allen said that West Virginia is an economically diverse state, and while the statewide unemployment rate is currently 3.8 percent that doesn’t account for differences between localities like the southern coalfields and the eastern panhandle. 

“You know, the picture in the southern coalfields as compared with Monongalia is very different,” Allen said. “So essentially, these population centers that are doing well, in terms of the number of jobs available would dictate how many weeks of unemployment everybody in the state would be eligible for, even though folks in more rural parts of the state with fewer job opportunities, are seeing a very different economic landscape job opportunity landscape.”