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Legislature approves bill to tie unemployment benefits to jobless rates

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill to reduce the number of weeks people receive jobless benefits and tie them to the state’s unemployment rate passed the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday and goes to the governor.

Senate Bill 193 is sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and would shorten the current maximum time for unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 14 to 20 weeks. When unemployment is at or below 6.5 percent, people would receive 14 weeks of benefits. If unemployment is above 6.5 percent, an additional week would be added for each .5 percent increase in the rate with a maximum of 20 weeks of benefits. People in state-run job training programs could get an additional five weeks of benefits.

The bill raises the weekly benefit amount from a maximum of $265 to $275 beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, carried the bill in the House.

“It’s a good deal for small businesses, it’s a good deal for business in general and it’s a good deal for those individuals who get laid off and don’t know what the job market is,” Garrett said. “This will push them to those job programs to see which jobs are available and what are good paying jobs for them.”

A fiscal note on the bill says it will decrease by about $45 million the obligations of the employer-funded Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund.

The current unemployment rate in Alabama is 3.7%.

“Right now the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s ever been in Alabama so there are plenty of jobs available but we are still one of the few southeastern states that will pay the full six months’ worth of unemployment while jobs are available today,” Garrett said. “When people are unemployed you want to get them back in the work force as quickly as possible, it’s good for them and the state.”

Many Democrats spoke against the bill Tuesday in nearly five hours of debate, saying cutting up to 12 weeks of benefits will hurt the poorest in the state.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said that those who are let go from a career they have had most of their life will not be able to simply jump into a new job that requires brand new skills.

“You have to consider a person’s age,” Moore said. “Some people cannot go through this training program because of their age and you would require a person to learn all new skills and get a new job for that one even though they’ve had a successful career for most of their life in another field.”

Orr said several southern states have shortened their unemployment benefit timeframes in recent years.

“Our competitor states have taken on this floating number of weeks based on the unemployment rates,” Orr said this week.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Georgia ties the benefit to the unemployment rate and provides up to 14 weeks. Florida and North Carolina provide up to 12 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate.

Arkansas and South Carolina provide up to 20 weeks regardless of the unemployment rate.

“They’ve all re-evaluated their unemployment, ours is the most generous with the five-week kicker (for people in job training programs),” Orr said.

The bill previously passed the Senate on a 29-to-2 vote.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said that this is a bad bill because it is only going to hurt people who are already in a bad situation.

“I just don’t think we need to reduce the amount of time for someone who is likely facing hard circumstances because of something out of their control,” England said.

Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette, voted for the bill.

“I think it’s sensible,” he said. “I do think we have to be careful in not going too far, but in good times, it makes sense. My mind could change in a time down the road if the unemployment situation changed.” 

Shoals lawmaker Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, favored the bill.

“To me, you’re getting a raise short term, and you can extend those benefits by seeking job training through the Alabama Department of Labor,” he said.

Kiel said that if someone can’t get a job now, they likely need some retraining.

“The hiring possibilities now are almost endless, especially in our district,” Kiel said. 

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said that he supports the bill because he likes how it is a compromise between the amount of weeks and money given to the unemployed.

“It’s going to give them more benefits and even though it is a shorter amount of time, it will be a good jump start for them and gives them an incentive to go out and find another job,” Wood said.

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