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Washington House approves unemployment benefits legislation for striking workers

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(The Center Square) – The Washington House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow workers in the state to receive unemployment insurance during strikes.

Currently, a worker is disqualified from receiving benefits if he or she is unemployed because of a labor action. House Bill 1893 would remove the prohibition against receiving unemployment insurance benefits for workers taking part in a strike.

The House approved a notable amendment to the bill to shift costs onto employers involved in labor disputes covered by HB 1893, instead of spreading the expense across the unemployment insurance system. This is a change from the underlying bill which would have had those benefits socialized across the unemployment insurance system.

Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, noted that there is a 5.4% cap on the employment experience factor, so if there is a large strike with a lot of benefits paid out, the employer gets capped at the 5.4% mark.

“[This] inherently means that all the employers in the state are going to pick up the rest of the tab on the impact,” Corry said late Monday night during House floor debate.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, Washington could potentially see an increase this year in unemployment insurance claims from 812 to 3,000. That translates into an increase of $9.8 million to $14.1 million in annual payout of benefits that currently sit around $120 million a year.

The note also found that the state denied an average of 2,313 claims per year due to a labor dispute.

According to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, thousands of workers went on strike in one of 26 labor actions in Washington in 2023.

During the floor debate, Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, argued that strikes are supposed to be what employees do as a last resort, because negotiations have stalled and this bill incentivizes employees to take advantage of the unemployment benefits.

“By paying employees unemployment during this time, it makes it an easier choice,” Schmidt said. “I fear that this is going to be something that becomes more usual and more often.”

Schmidt added that when workers go on strike, it slows down other industry sectors.

The House passed the bill by a 53-44 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.