District Moves To Modernize Unemployment Insurance, But Slowly

One of the very good things in the economic recovery act are several provisions aimed at bringing state unemployment compensation programs into the 21st century. They offer states–and the District of Columbia–financial incentives to make certain types of changes.

The District qualified for the first third of its incentive–$9.2 million–last June, when it certified that its UI law included what’s called an alternative base period. The alternative referred to here includes the quarter in which a claim is filed in the base period that’s used for calculating earnings. This helps more low-wage workers qualify.

Now the DC Council has a pending bill–the Unemployment Compensation Administration Modernization Act (B18-420)–that could bring home the remaining two-thirds. At any rate, that’s what the Fenty administration says it would do.

The bill would enact two of the four modernization options specified in the economic recovery act:

  • Extended benefits for unemployed people who are receiving training to prepare them for a high-demand job because the job they lost was in a declining occupation or the result of a permanent reduction of operations.
  • An allowance of $15 per week for each dependent relative, up to a maximum of $50 per week. This would be available only for people who file for UI after the legislation is passed and would extend only through 2010.

The economic recovery act limits incentives to provisions in state laws that are “permanent” and “not subject to discontinuation.” It’s unclear to me why the administration believes that either provision will qualify since B18-420 is emergency legislation, i.e., due to expire in 90 days unless re-enacted. Nor do I see how an allowance that sunsets would qualify, even if the bill were regular legislation.

However, another pending bill–the Unemployment Compensation Reform Act (B18-455)–would institute a third modernization option, with no termination date.

At this point, D.C. workers are ineligible for UI if they have left their last employer “without good cause connected to the work” or because of domestic violence. B18-455 would expand the exception to include workers who resign for other “compelling family reasons,” i.e., to accompany a spouse or domestic partner who is moving to a place that makes commuting the job impractical or to care for a family member.

So the Council seems on the road to doing the right thing–and the smart thing, given the $18.4 million it would bring into our local economy.

I just wonder what’s taking so long. The U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance on applying for the incentives on February 26, 2009. By mid-June, 22 states had enacted reforms that qualified them for their full incentive.

B18-420 wasn’t introduced until late July. B18-455 came along two months later. Two more months elapsed before the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development held a hearing on the bills. Thus far, no further action.

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