House committee drafting bill to ease restrictions on unemployment benefits

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz outlines the concerns with the current unemployment insurance program during a hearing on March 16, 2020. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

The reality of coronavirus’ impact on Alaska’s economy and workers became crystal clear on Monday when Anchorage’s order for restaurants and bars to close everything but takeout and delivery went into effect.

“Effective today at 5 p.m. I will officially lay off 147 Employees,” wrote Matanuska Brewing Company owner Matthew Tomter on Facebook. “This will allow them immediate access to unemployment benefits. I have never written a layoff notice since I started my business in 2005.”

The announcement is the most significant so far as Alaskans adapt to a new reality of social distancing in hopes of slow the spread of the virus and is almost guaranteed not to be the last—or the largest.

The fear of an economic downturn was front-and-center in the Legislature on Monday as several legislators spoke with new urgency about the need to stick around in order to respond and pass emergency measures to help ease the pain on Alaska’s economy and its workers.

“There are very practical concerns that we need to address right now,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, at a House Majority Coalition news conference. “In a time of crisis, what people need is not for their leaders to go hunker down and hide in a corner. They need us to step up to the plate. That’s what leadership is, it requires us to figure out what needs to be done and make sure that we put the best interests of Alaskans ahead of any individual priority.”

Spohnholz and the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which she chairs, announced during its Monday hearing that it will be drafting legislation aimed at easing access to unemployment benefits during the coronavirus crisis.

“For a lot of employees who work in food service, for example, they are not going to be able to work for the next couple of weeks but still have a job and will be eligible to work again as soon as we’re all allowed to go back to the usual order of business,” she said. “But they don’t have any documentation of that and yet they still have to pay rent and buy groceries for their children.”

Currently, to be eligible for unemployment insurance you need to be actively looking for work and if you’re furloughed, you need a note from your employer saying you won’t be back at work for at least 45 days, a challenge given the uncertainty of the situation.

Several other legislators have highlighted the need to address furloughed workers. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, noted that ferry system employees were unable to access unemployment benefits during the system’s lengthy furloughs.

In an interview with The Midnight Sun after the hearing, Spohnholz said the plan is still coming together but she hopes that they can have the first hearing on the new legislation as early as Friday.

“We’re still trying to figure out the details of what it is but the long and short of it is there’s enough funding in the unemployment insurance account for some emergency unemployment and we’ve been talking with the department about loosening it for unemployment,” she said. “The implications of COVID-19 are so significant that I think we have a responsibility to step up to the plate and help ensure that Alaskans aren’t victimized twice by COVID-19, first by the virus and then by the economic impacts. There are tens of thousands of Alaskans out there living paycheck by paycheck and it’s our responsibility as leaders to make sure that they have the tools to keep them from being homeless and make sure they can put food on the table for their kids.”

She said the plan would be to waive the 45-day requirement for furloughed employees and potentially increase the size of the payouts. She said she’s working closely with the administration on the measure and noted that several legislators are working not just this legislation but other measures to address other parts of Alaska’s economy, specifically crediting Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, for his work. Sen. Click Bishop, the chair of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, is also working on similar unemployment legislation, which would help the measure move even more swiftly.

The House had attempted to waive public notice requirements for meetings, allowing the legislature to respond more quickly by having as little as a day’s notice for new bill hearings. Minority Republicans blocked the measure in a mixture of fear about the virus’ potential arrival in Juneau, that the majority would sneak through personal legislation and general opposition to an expansion of social programs.

Fields, Spohnholz and several other legislators argued that it’s the duty of the Legislature to act now to protect Alaska from the mounting economic fears. Fields noted that much of the “personal legislation” the minority feared included critical legislation like the renewal of jobs programs and professional licensing boards and commissions.

“If we fail to pass some of these bills, we’re going to magnify what’s already going to be a very severe recession. Our business, our hard-working constituents need us right now,” he said. “they don’t need us at the end of the shift.”

Other coronavirus-related legislative news

  • Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed into law the state mental health budget, which contains $13 million of state and federal funding to respond to coronavirus, as well as Spohnholz’s House Bill 29, which requires private insurance companies to also cover telehealth services.
  • The Senate Finance Committee is set to begin taking public testimony on the operating budget on Wednesday. Since the Legislature and its information offices are closed to the public, all testimony will be delivered by phone or email.
  • The House Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee will be holding a hearing at 1 p.m. today to hear an update on COVID-19.
  • Two additional cases of coronavirus were identified in Fairbanks on Monday night. Unlike the first case of a cargo pilot who was aware of his risk and limited his exposure to others, it’s not immediately clear what, if any, risk these two separate cases might pose to the community. According to the News-Miner, the state health officials are “in the process of finding out who the two men came into contact with and are tracing their steps within Fairbanks.”
  • The state remains tight-lipped about the capacity of the state’s health care system, declining to give a number of available ventilators and ICU beds. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink told media on Monday that the figure is flexible but the takeaway is that there are serious concerns about the capacity of Alaska’s health care system. Health care officials are urging people to postpone any elective health procedures scheduled in the next three months to help ensure hospitals are not overwhelmed.

More from TMS

Be the first to comment on "House committee drafting bill to ease restrictions on unemployment benefits"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.