CINCINNATI -- When Dave Morrow found a recently introduced bill would cut unemployment benefits, he knew he had to voice his opposition.
Morrow, 53, has been working at a Springfield plant for 26 years. He recently found out the plant was closing, which means he would soon be laid off and forced to rely on the unemployment benefits to provide for his family until he is able to find another job.
But if the proposed bill passes, Morrow, and many unemployed Ohioans like him, will only receive 12 weeks worth of unemployment compensation.
So, at a hearing earlier this week, Morrow asked the committee what many before him have asked: “How does this proposal help the people of Ohio by reducing, restricting and placing the burden on the people who have worked hard their whole lives and have lost their livelihood through circumstances beyond their control?’”
However, lawmakers are convinced that this bill can bring stability to the state’s unemployment insurance fund.
Ohio borrowed about $1.6 billion from the federal government for its unemployment fund during the recession. The state still owes the feds about $770 million, which it is scheduled to pay off in 2017.
House Bill 394 was introduced last November as a way to make sure the state does not land in that position again by making the unemployment insurance fund solvent, said Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania.
“The time is now,” Sears said. “It wasn’t really appropriate for us to do this any earlier than now because our unemployment level was high.
“But now we’re almost done paying off our federal debt, our unemployment is very low, we have all of these other processes that are circling around someone who needs some assistance, and it’s time to move it to the next step.”
The bill would reduce the maximum amount of weeks a laid-off worker could receive unemployment compensation from 26 weeks down to 12 weeks, though the length of time might increase if the unemployment rate goes up.
Aside from reduced benefit weeks, workers would not receive additional benefits for dependents, but that might not be a bad thing.
Sears said the only people who are qualifying for the dependent benefits are those who are high wage earners.
“Our low wagers, those who should want help, don’t qualify,” Sears said. “It doesn’t even make sense from a public policy standpoint.”
On Tuesday, the House Insurance committee approved changes to the bill, one of which increases the number of benefit weeks available to construction workers to 20 weeks. The amendment also allows unemployment compensation hearings to be held via teleconference.
The changes however, did little to satisfy opponents of the bill.
They said the proposed changes would only cause more harm than good to Ohioans who have relied on the current unemployment compensation program as a safety net.
Cutting benefits would increase the likelihood of working Ohioans living in poverty after a job loss, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
“With Ohio’s poverty level still above the national average, we must invest in, not erode, programs that help Ohioans get back on their feet,” Hamler-Fugitt wrote in her testimony to the insurance committee.
Although some of the amendments improve the bill, Hamler-Fugitt said she believes lawmakers should start over with “a committee of stakeholders that includes the state, counties, employers, and employees to make recommendations on the unemployment insurance system.”
House Bill 394 is a reasonable approach to address the insolvency in Ohio’s unemployment trust fund, said Doug Holmes, a proponent of the bill and president of UWC – Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers’ Compensation.
Holmes said the reduced benefits and increased taxes on the employers’ side will improve the solvency of the unemployment fund in the long term, and reduce the likelihood of borrowing funds from the federal government.
“The system needs to be sustainable,” Holmes said. “That’s to the benefit of the workers as well as the benefit of businesses and state as a whole.”
During the hearing, Rep. Christie Bryant Kuhns, D-Cincinnati, said she felt frustrated that the conversation on achieving solvency has been replaced by numbers and lacks the human aspect.
Kuhns voiced concern for the laid off workers in rural regions – who may take a longer time to find employment – under the proposed bill.
“It’s fine to sit here and discuss it in theory, but I think there has to be some attention paid to the impact when it goes into our Ohioans’ homes,” Kuhns said. “I don’t think the employer should carry the entire burden, but, at the same time, you cannot put all of it on the backs of the employees.”
Sears said she is always willing to talk to opponents about the unemployment bill, possibly making changes, but scrapping the bill is not an option. Sears added the proposed bill might be presented to the House floor early February.
Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JoshuaLim93