Separate bills that would reduce the maximum amount of unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks and require recipients to actively seek work passed the Republican-led West Virginia Senate on Tuesday.
It took two hours of debate to cover both bills. Legislation addressing the benefits period passed on a 20-14 vote.
“It moves West Virginia forward,” said Morgan County Republican Sen. Charles Trump. “It will not, as some of the hyperbole has suggested, cause the sky to fall.”
According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, West Virginia would join nine other states that provide fewer than 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
“What evidence is there that it’s going to work?” said Sen. Mike Romano, a Harrison County Democrat. “Unemployment saves folks from being on welfare.”
The amount of allowable weeks for the benefits would be tied to the state’s unemployment rate, which currently is 3.7%, the lowest on record. If the unemployment rate is below 5.5%, the maximum duration of benefits would be 12 weeks. It would increase an additional week for each half-percentage point increase in the unemployment rate to a maximum of 20 weeks.
Senators noted that the average length of unemployment benefits currently being paid is six weeks. The maximum weekly benefit is $424.
Some senators said it will reduce the burden on businesses that have to pay unemployment taxes. About 8,000 people in a state of 1.8 million residents currently collect unemployment benefits, while there are tens of thousands more job openings.
“That unemployment tax is an inhibitor to business in West Virginia,” said Kanawha County Republican Tom Takubo. “If we can do what’s intended, which is to help people that lose their job while at the same time lowering that tax down, then we’re going to create more jobs. We don’t want to hurt anybody but at the same time we’ve got to be competitive.”
Democrats warned that the reduction would cause West Virginia to further lose residents who will look for work elsewhere. West Virginia already lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other state in the nation over the past decade. From 2010 to 2020, the population dropped 3.2%, a loss of about 59,000 people.
Democrats Mike Caputo of Marion County and Owens Brown of Ohio County, who opposed the bill, said most other senators have never experienced the unemployment lines.
Caputo said he was 11 in 1968 when his father cried at the kitchen table after being laid off and that unemployment benefits “kept us alive, kept us going” until his father could find a job in the coal mines.
Caputo said he, too, got laid off from the coal mines, was out of work for more than six months and had to cancel plans to buy his first house
“Have you ever experienced that?” Caputo asked other senators “It’s not fun. When your neighbor gets laid off, that’s sad. But when you get laid off, it’s a crisis. It’s an absolute crisis. This is kicking a man when he’s down. This is a race to the bottom. This is not good for West Virginia.”
Brown said he’s been in the unemployment line many times, including when he was laid off as a steelworker.
He said West Virginians without college degrees will find it tougher to land a new job.
“We seem to have an attitude a bit more punitive toward the unemployed, like it’s their fault that they’re unemployed,” Brown said. “I want you to get out there and try to find a job in 12 weeks.”
Opponents also pointed out that a lack of transportation and available child-care options are burdens to looking for work.
The other bill, which would require four specific jobs search activities a week for those receiving unemployment benefits, passed on a 23-11 vote. Among the activities are registering with job sites, applying for training and taking a civil service exam. Those who fail to comply would be ineligible for benefits.
Residents would be allowed to work a part-time job while receiving full unemployment benefits.
Both bills now goes to the House of Delegates.