Iowa House and Senate pass bill to shorten unemployment benefits by 10 weeks

The chambers remain divided on a one-week waiting period

By: - March 23, 2022 5:30 pm

Rep. Michael Bousselot led debate on a bill to cut unemployment benefits. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa workers would have 10 fewer weeks of unemployment benefits under a bill passed Wednesday by the Iowa House and Senate.

House File 2355 is an amended version of a proposal by Gov. Kim Reynolds. It shortens the maximum amount of unemployment to 16 weeks, down from 26 weeks under current law. The bill also redefines a suitable job, requiring unemployed workers to accept lower-paid offers earlier in their job search.

The Senate’s version of the bill also introduces a one-week waiting period before Iowans begin receiving unemployment benefits. Rep. Michael Bousselot said he removed that provision from the House’s bill after discussion with union workers, who opposed the waiting period.

Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, defended the delay, arguing that union strike pay often takes effect after the first week of a strike.

“In a job market where workers, especially a trades worker, can find a job anywhere, maybe this is the perfect opportunity for them to find a better job for a company that appreciates them more and doesn’t disrespect them so much that they would lay them off week-to-week in the way their union treats them in the event that they strike,” Dickey said.

But Senate Republicans were not united on the inclusion of the weeklong delay.

“If they don’t find a job (within a week of being laid off), they’ve now spent a week receiving no benefits,”  Sen. Zach Nunn, R-Altoona, said. “As a father now of six kids, we all recognize how hard that is… to put food on the table.”

Nunn and Sen. Jeff Reichman, both Republicans, voted against the bill.

The House will need to approve the Senate’s version of the bill – or come to some other agreement with the upper chamber – before sending the legislation to Reynolds’ desk to be signed into law.

Bousselot said the bill will “update and repurpose” Iowa’s unemployment system, especially amid the state’s worker shortage.

“What we are proposing to do is to refocus unemployment on ‘re-employment,’ rather than just being a safety net,” Bousselot, R-Ankeny, said.

Democrats in both chambers opposed the bill, offering a list of amendments to broadly change the state’s protections for workers: restoring collective bargaining rights, increasing access to affordable housing, making it easier for people to find a job despite a criminal record, and raising the minimum wage.

All Democratic amendments failed on the House and Senate floor. Members of the minority party spoke for several hours, emphasizing that the majority of people on unemployment severely need the benefits.

“Why are we punishing people who are fired through no fault of their own and looking for work?” asked House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst. “By cutting them off and thinking that will get them back to work? This is short-sighted, this is mean, and this is wrong.”

The House passed the bill 58-37 Wednesday afternoon. Two Republicans joined Democrats to oppose the legislation: Rep. Martin Graber and Rep. Charlie McClintock. The Senate passed the bill Wednesday evening by a vote of 30-20.

Reynolds called for changes to unemployment in her Condition of the State address, arguing supplemental pandemic unemployment payments and stimulus checks rewarded idleness and degraded the value of work. Her proposal included the one-week waiting period.

“There are many reasons for the worker shortage, but we need to recognize that, in some cases, it’s because the government has taken away the need or desire to work,” Reynolds said in January. “The safety net has become a hammock.”

What does the unemployment bill mean for Iowa workers?

If signed into law, House File 2355 will make several immediate changes for Iowans on unemployment.

Unemployment benefits will last only 16 weeks, rather than the current maximum of 26 weeks. Iowans will also have a one-week waiting period before they receive their first payment under the Senate’s version of the bill.

Unemployed Iowans may need to accept a lower-paying job sooner in the process to continue receiving unemployment benefits. Under current law, an individual would not be required to take a lower-paying job offer for the first five weeks of employment. The bill would change that, ratcheting down the definition of “acceptable” job beginning in the second week of unemployment.

A workforce bill would change the definition of suitable jobs for unemployed Iowans. (Graph by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found a majority of Iowans, 53%, opposed cutting unemployment benefits. Public opinion on the issue shifted significantly over the last year: a 2021 Iowa Poll found 75% of Iowans opposed unemployment cuts, including a majority among Democratic, Republican and independent voters.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.