Alaska poised to expand unemployment benefits after bill’s speedy passage in House

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

Things—well, at least some things—are moving fast in Juneau.

The state is poised to quickly enact legislation to ease access to unemployment benefits as thousands of Alaskans are bracing for the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House Labor and Commerce Committee began drafting the bill on Monday, introduced it midday Wednesday, held a hearing on it Wednesday night and brought it to a vote on the House floor today, where it passed in a rare unanimous vote.

“HB 308 is about responding to COVID-19 in Alaska. COVID-19 is creating a public health emergency for our state but it’s also creating an economic emergency for many Alaskans,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, who spearheaded the legislation as the chair of the Labor and Commerce Committee. “In a few short weeks, we’ve gone from watching reports of COVID-19 abroad to it being right here on the doorstep of Alaska. The results of our public health social distancing strategies will reduce COVID-19 spread but it’s also creating widespread hardships almost immediately.”

Bars and restaurants statewide have halted dine-in services to slow the spread of COVID-19 and several communities are bracing for what will likely be a non-existent tourism season.

In response, House Bill 308 eliminates the one-week waiting period to get onto unemployment benefits and expands access to 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 also triples the amount the state offers for dependents to $75 per week per dependent with no total cap. An amendment on the House floor would also extend the benefit period for workers affected by COVID-19 from 90 days to 120 days.

The entire measure would be set to expire in April 2021, which is when the federal government’s emergency unemployment measure is set to expire. Spohnholz noted that the state currently has a surplus in its unemployment insurance funds.

The measure now heads to the Senate, where’s it’s expected to get similarly speedy treatment (with a hearing at 1 p.m.), before heading to Gov. Mike Dunleavy to be signed into law. Both the Senate and governor’s administration have been closely involved in the formation of the legislation and support the measure. If the House process is anything to go by, the measure could be into effect by Monday or even sooner.

Somewhat speedy

While the House was fast to approve the unemployment measure, legislators are hoping that several other bills can cross the finish line as legislators rush to the finish line. Several of the bills don’t directly deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but legislators argue they’re important for the state’s economy.

Those arguments have fallen on the disinterested ears of minority Republicans, who’ve argued—often with lengthy floor speeches—that the Legislature should hurry up and get done.

“Sitting on the floor and listening to lengthy speeches while possibly contracting a virus is probably something I would not prefer,” said Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, while giving a lengthy speech about the need to streamline the Legislature’s focus.

Legislators in the majority who’ve pushed to for additional bills to be passed noted that they’re still waiting for the Senate to pass the capital and operating budgets. The Legislature will also need to figure out how to fund the supplemental budget after minority Republicans blocked its funding because they wanted to hold onto leverage to eventually force a discussion on a full PFD, further cuts and anti-abortion legislation.

“The reality is we’re going to be here for a certain period of time while we wait for the Senate,” said Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat who was closely involved in the unemployment legislation. “In that time, I think we all recognize we’re approaching a very tumultuous time in our economy where every sector of the economy is going to be threatened. Certainly fisheries, certainly hospitality. With these brief hours that we have together, we should do everything we can to provide stability to these industries.”

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