Wash. Senate Passes Permanent Changes in Unemployment Insurance

February 15, 2006

Wash. Senate Democrats have approved a bill that would permanently change unemployment laws to pay out additional benefits to seasonal workers.

The measure, which passed on a 25-22 vote, reverses the state’s move toward “four-quarter averaging” in which unemployment benefits are calculated by determining a worker’s full 12-month salary. The two-quarter system to be made permanent under the bill gives seasonal workers — laborers who may only work for six months out of the year — full unemployment benefits.

“We want to make the system fair,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, the bill’s primary sponsor.

The bill now goes to the House.

The state has extra money in its unemployment insurance fund since altering tax laws two years ago. But the bill infuriated Republicans, who said the Democrats recanted on a promise to produce a bipartisan compromise on the issue.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette said the proposal was disappointing, opened the door for more taxes in the future, and threatened some small businesses. Parlette and Kohl-Welles worked together on a seven-month study on the issue.

“We were promised a bipartisan collaborative approach to this issue,” said Parlette, R-Wenatchee. “This is not a compromise bill. Negotiations have not even begun.”

“Shame on the Senate,” added Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

“Doesn’t anybody keep their word in this place anymore?” bellowed Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, before yielding to the gavel of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.

Two Democrats, Mary Margaret Haugen, of Camano Island, and Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, voted against the measure. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, crossed the aisle to vote in favor.

Under the two-quarter approach made permanent in the bill, a nurse who made $40,000 for 12 months of work would receive the same unemployment benefits as a construction worker who made $20,000 for his or her six months of work. The formula determines a person’s benefits based on the two most productive quarters of work, which, in the case of the nurse and construction worker, would both be $20,000.

Last session, Democrats passed a similar measure to temporarily implement the two-quarter system, just months after the four-quarter average went into effect. That bill was to sunset in two years, allowing the task force time to draw up a solution.

Republican lawmakers wanted to continue the state’s push to determine benefits based on a person’s entire year of work.

Seasonal benefits will help farmers, construction workers, community college teachers and others who don’t have full-year occupations.

Parlette said the new refunds, which she deemed “temporary” and a “false security,” would suck the trust fund dry — especially in an economic downturn.

Democrats scoffed at that claim.

“Solvency is not an issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Topics Washington Politics

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