Senate committee advances bill that would delay unemployment-benefit payouts

By: - April 28, 2021 11:35 am

An Iowa nursing home worker who was fired after refusing to let a visitor enter the building due to COVID-19 restrictions has been awarded jobless benefits for keeping residents of the home safe. (Photo by Getty Images)

Legislation that would delay the payout of unemployment benefits to jobless Iowans moved forward Wednesday in the Iowa Senate.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced Senate Study Bill 1273 on a 10-5, party-line vote. The bill would revise Iowa’s unemployment-benefit law, in part by imposing a one-week delay on the initial collection of benefits for newly unemployed workers. Lawmakers estimate the move would save the state $23 million per year.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat, registered his opposition to the bill during a subcommittee meeting Wednesday, saying the bill is “cold-hearted and kicks Iowans when they’re already down and have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”

John Davis, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, told the subcommittee the week of delay would help Iowa Workforce Development, the state agency that processes unemployment claims, ferret out fraudulent claims before checks are issued.

“No state in the country has a higher level of benefits and a lower cost of living than Iowa,” he said. “We’re proud of that status and nothing (in the bill) will change that.”

Davis said that prior to 2020, the fund typically would disburse around $400 million per year. Over the past 16 months, he said, the payouts have totaled $4 billion, with $1.2 billion of that consisting of state money. All but $490 million of the state’s share, he said, was put into the fund by Iowa employers.

The bill in question, he said, will ensure the fund’s solvency and will ”preserve Iowa’s reputation as one of the most generous states in the nation for the provision of benefits to claimants.”

John Cacciatore, representing Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33 questioned that. He argued that since most Iowans collect benefits for several weeks or more, there’s nothing to prevent IWD from verifying the legitimacy of claims as benefits are paid out, and then recovering any money that’s deemed to have been improperly collected.

Peter Hird, lobbyist for the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL/CIO, also spoke in opposition to the bill. “This bill will take over $20 million out of the pockets of Iowans who work,” he said. “We really hope you’ll reconsider this.”

Another provision of the bill would allow IWD to waive a requirement for workers dealing with temporary layoffs due to winter or inclement weather to conduct job searches after four weeks of unemployment. That would allow them to remain eligible for benefits, even if they expect to be called back to work once the weather improves.

Scott Newhard, representing the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, spoke in favor of that element of the bill, noting that as things stand now, IWD can’t legally waive the job-search requirement, although it essentially did so in years past.

Felicia Hilton, lobbyist for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, pointed out that this provision of the bill is specific to road-construction workers, not to construction workers in general. “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in this,” she said. “To exclude all other construction workers from that is a challenge … We deal with the same issues when it comes to weather.”

Opponents of the bill include Common Good Iowa, the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades, the IBEW Iowa State Conference, the Laborers International Union of North America and the Iowa Catholic Conference. Those in favor of the bill include the Iowa Chamber Alliance and the National Federation of Independent Business.

Bolkcom argued that a one-week delay in benefits would mean Iowa workers will be “on their own” immediately after losing their job.

“This is a $23 million savings that essentially stiffs workers out of their first week of unemployment benefits,” he said. Turning to Sen. Waylon Brown, a Republican from Osage, Bolkcom said, “This bill gets you and the Republican Party back on track as the party of the fat cats and big-business owners, and it is more evidence the GOP is not really the party of blue-collar and wage-earning workers. If you were actually on the side of workers you would not be kicking them in the teeth during the most difficult time of their life.”

Brown responded, “We need to make sure there is balance there, both for the individuals who are receiving assistance and also for the individuals who are paying into the fund.”

The bill moves to the full Senate for debate.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.