The House voted today to pay boosted unemployment assistance for parents through the end of the year over conservative objections that the benefits have caused a shortage of low-wage workers.
House Bill 151 would pay unemployed parents an additional $51 per child per week through the end of this year on top of the $24 paid through the state’s standard unemployment system. The benefit had been enacted last year at the start of the pandemic but expired in April.
Supporters of the measure said it’s a critically important measure for unemployed parents and their children as the ongoing lack of child care has made it difficult for parents, who represent less than a third of people on employment, to return to work. Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, the Anchorage Democrat who carried the bill on the House floor, said while there should be greater reforms to Alaska’s unemployment system but House Bill 151 is narrowly targeted.
“It’s only for people with children,” she said. “It makes a temporary change only for the 30% of people who are unemployment insurance who have dependents.”
The legislation passed today is separate from the $300 per week boost to unemployment paid for by the federal government, which the Dunleavy administration plans to end three months earlier than expected amid a swell of conservative pushback.
While economists have warned that the labor shortage is far more complicated than just the unemployment benefits, conservatives and several Republicans today argued that any boosted assistance would hurt businesses’ ability to hire as the economy reopens. Some like Eagle River Republican Rep. Ken McCarty cited anecdotal evidence that it was hurting hiring.
“Covid is coming to an end and there’s a lot of jobs opening up. … There are people that are and have been denying work even though some would say that it’s illegal, which it is, and yet it’s not fully there. I know that personally, and I know that from friends who have businesses,” he said, adding that jobs would be good for the mental health of the unemployed. “When there’s lack of purpose, people flounder and perish. As a mental health expert that we need to get back to people being employed.”
For many Democrats and some independents, the arguments rang hollow. Some argued that businesses ought to consider paying living wages if they need employees and others noted that jobs aren’t widely available throughout the state and some areas still face a severe jobs shortage.
“Covid isn’t quite over for everyone, everywhere,” said Anchorage Independent Rep. Calvin Schrage.
Others said the conservative pushback was particularly ugly coming from legislators who make $50,000 a year while collecting hefty per diem payments.
“There’s a certain irony to debating a piddly $75 a week benefit while we sit here collecting $300 a day in per diem, I bet a lot of Alaskans would like something that generous,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, noting that some legislators refused to return to session last year out of fear for their personal health and safety. “Low-wage workers are working every single day to have their most basic needs met. For the individuals who will benefit from this, we’re talking about their dependents, we’re talking about their children. … I’m left believing that for some reason some folks think it’s OK to punish children for the circumstance of the adults in their lives.”
Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, was one of the few Republicans to support the measure and the only to speak about it during the floor debate. He noted that the per-child unemployment boost isn’t available to the vast majority of people on unemployment.
“I don’t see where everybody thinks unemployment is going up,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like it to me.”
The measure passed 22-18. It now heads to the Senate, where it will need to move quickly or possibly be rolled into another similar measure if it’s to pass before the end of the session on Wednesday.