Bill making changes to jobless benefits clears House panel

Published 3:04 pm Thursday, February 22, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Jobless benefits for out-of-work Kentuckians would end much sooner under a bill advanced by Republican lawmakers on Thursday.

The length of jobless benefits would become tied to the statewide unemployment rate under the bill advanced by the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee. Laid-off workers would get benefits for 16 weeks if the bill becomes law, based on the latest jobless rate. Benefits currently are paid up to 26 weeks.

The measure also would raise the threshold for eligibility and would freeze the maximum weekly benefit until neighboring states, on average, meet or exceed Kentucky’s amount.

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Opponents said the changes would hurt people already struggling, especially in areas such as the eastern Kentucky coalfields where job prospects are limited.

“When we have counties in our commonwealth that are some of the poorest in the entire United States, it is a shame for us to be cutting benefits for workers that are laid off through no fault of their own,” said state AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan.

The bill’s supporters included an official from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration. They said the changes would be another incentive for laid-off workers to find new jobs quickly.

“We want to put a target out there that will move people into the workforce, but in a fair way,” said Brad Montell, deputy secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.

Kentuckians on average receive jobless benefits for about 19 weeks. During the third quarter of 2017, only one state exceeded the length of time that Kentucky paid in jobless benefits, according to Republican Rep. Jim DeCesare, the bill’s main sponsor.

Speaking against the measure, Democratic Rep. James Kay of Versailles said he relied on unemployment benefits after he lost his job at a law firm due to the Great Recession.

He called it a “humbling time,” and urged his colleagues to consider the impact of shortening the length of benefits on younger workers with short resumes and student loan debts.

“That unemployment insurance helped me pay my student loans and not go into default,” he said.

Unemployment benefits are funded with a tax paid by Kentucky employers. Montell told the committee that the tax is “fairly well in line” with other states.

Under the bill, the length of benefits would grow incrementally as the state jobless rate increases. The 16-week minimum would apply if the statewide rate is 5.9 percent or lower. The maximum would be 26 weeks of support if unemployment is 9 percent or higher.

In December, Kentucky’s seasonally adjusted, preliminary jobless rate was 4.4 percent.

The bill also would raise the minimum salary someone previously had to earn to qualify for benefits. Now, a worker must have made at least $750 in their best quarter. The bill would raise the amount to $1,500. The amount would be adjusted in future years based on inflation.

That change, the bill’s opponents said, would punish low-wage workers, and would prevent some people from qualifying for benefits.

The bill also would freeze the maximum weekly unemployment benefit at $448 until surrounding states, on average, meet or exceed Kentucky’s amount.

The freeze would essentially erode benefits over time, critics said. Londrigan said Kentucky should embrace having more generous benefits than many of its neighboring states.

“We ought to be proud of the fact that we’re helping them put food on the table during difficult times,” he said.

The legislation is House Bill 252.