Laid-off workers in Washington state would get at least $200 a week in unemployment benefits under provisions of a bill passed Friday by the state House of Representatives.
The House voted 91-2 in favor of boosting the minimum benefit check to $155 a week from the current $129, then tacked an additional $45 on everyone’s unemployment benefit check.
The new range for weekly benefit checks would be $200 to $586.
Those temporary increases would take effect in May, the earliest the state Employment Security Department can implement, said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and prime sponsor of House Bill 1906. They would remain in place until Jan. 3, 2010, then drop back down to the regular range.
The Senate is expected to follow suit and send the measure to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who proposed the $45 boost in her Jan. 14 inaugural address.
This is the Washington Legislature’s first step toward an economic stimulus package that lawmakers hope will keep a stumbling economy from getting worse. The unemployment rate in Washington is 7.1 percent and is expected to get worse.
Unemployed workers spend their benefit checks right away, providing an immediate stimulus, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, told reporters at a news conference before the House vote.
“They don’t put it in savings or in stocks and bonds,” Chopp said. “They spend it.”
About 251,000 people in Washington were unemployed in December. About 152,000 of them were drawing benefits. The average worker gets about $1,000 a month from unemployment, and often that’s enough to keep making house payments, Chopp said.
“This is a smart investment, and we hope it will help,” said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Normandy Park.
The Association of Washington Business opposes the beefed-up benefits because they will drain about $200 million from the $4.2 billion unemployment insurance trust fund. Business owners fear they may have to make up for that later through higher contributions.
Chopp said a second bill, which is being put together by the Democratic majority in the Senate, will help businesses to the tune of $300 million to $600 million by temporarily lowering their contribution rates into the unemployment fund.
Only Republican Reps. Glenn Anderson of Fall City and Bruce Chandler of Granger in Eastern Washington voted against the higher benefits. Four representatives were absent.
HB 1906 also would expand eligibility for laid-off workers who can collect unemployment benefits while they are going to school to be trained for another job. Right now, that program is mainly for laid-off timber, fishing and aerospace workers. It would expand to allow low-wage workers, honorably discharged military veterans, including National Guardsmen, and disabled people to go to school without having to look for work.
Benefits for the shared-work program, which lets some workers get a partial paycheck and partial unemployment benefits, would be extended from six months to a full year. About 500 employers and 20,000 workers participate in that program.
Chopp said the federal economic stimulus package may add $25 a week to unemployment benefits, but the state couldn’t wait. Overall, laid-off workers can now collect benefits for as long as 72 weeks, with the federal government paying for nearly 40 of those weeks.
Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436