House committee intros bill to ease access to unemployment during coronavirus pandemic

The House Labor and Commerce Committee during a recent hearing. (Photo by the Alaska Legislature)

The House Labor and Commerce Committee today introduced legislation aimed at loosening the eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance in response to the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the Alaska economy and its workers.

The committee began work on the legislation on Monday as the House Bipartisan Coalition pushes ahead with measures to help ease the economic impact of the virus on Alaskans. The Legislature has already approved emergency funds for the state’s health response, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Monday.

While some legislators have pushed for a speedy end to the legislative session so they can head home, several legislators have called for the Alaska Legislature to continue with its work as long as possible to respond to the crisis.

On Monday, the city of Anchorage ordered a halt to any in-house dining and drinking. That order was extended statewide on Tuesday night by Dunleavy as the state’s confirmed cases rose to six.

In Anchorage, several businesses immediately laid off employees so they could begin to access unemployment. Currently, Alaska law doesn’t make unemployment benefits available to workers who’ve experienced a fall-off in hours or furloughs shorter than 45 days.

“8% of Alaskan workers were essentially laid off overnight, and they don’t know when they’re coming back to work,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, the chair of the Labor and Commerce Committee, in a prepared statement. “We must act swiftly to make sure Alaskan families can pay for groceries, rent, mortgages and other essentials.”

The legislation, House Bill 308, seeks to ease the restrictions on unemployment benefits in cases where an employee or employer are limiting hours due to providing care to others, preventing the spread of COVID-19 or preventing or limiting the economic loss or harm. It would also increase unemployment payments by $75 per week for each dependent.

The measure, if passed, is narrowly tailored to COVID-19 and would be set to expire in April 2021.

Spohnholz has been one of the House’s leaders in calling for a speedy response to the economic challenges facing Alaska. In an interview earlier this week, she said that the state’s unemployment insurance funds currently have the surplus funds to cover an emergency expenditure like this.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Though the House has sought to speed up the legislative process in response to coronavirus, the efforts have been met with some resistance from minority Republicans. The group blocked a measure to allow the Legislature to hold meetings with as little as a day’s notice on Monday, but eased its opposition on Tuesday after the measure was narrowed to coronavirus-related legislation.

Other coronavirus-related news

  • The state identified three additional cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday—one in Fairbanks, one in Anchorage and one in Ketchikan—bringing the state’s total confirmed cases to six.
  • Mike Dunleavy took the statewide the ban on in-house dining at bars and restaurants. It still allows for delivery and take-out orders but has done little to stem the impact on workers.
  • In addition, Dunleavy is turning his attention to the economy with the formation of an economic working group headed by none other than former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Gov. Sean Parnell.
  • Along with signing the bill for health funding, Dunleavy also delivered a handful of vetoes. He struck $70,000 from substance abuse recovery grants, $2 million from special needs housing and eliminated intent language intended to rein state spending on his anti-union lawsuits.

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