The end of the regular legislative session on Wednesday night marked the end of the road, at least for this year, for anything not on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s call for the special session that started on Thursday. That includes two worker-focused measures that would have paid parents on unemployment a per-child boost and provided essential workers and laid off workers with tuition assistance for college or job training.
Legislators won’t be able to advance either measure during the 30-day special session, which is largely focused on passing the state’s operating budget, but at least one worker-focused measure is still alive in the budget. Through an amendment on the Senate floor, the budget contains a proposal to pay up to a $1,200 return-to-work bonus for people on unemployment as of May 19 (the day the amendment was approved) and stay on the job for a month.
The measure, which was proposed by Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, would pay the $1,200 bonus to people taking a job and working at least 30 hours per week for one month. It would also pay a $600 bonus to people returning to work for between 20 and 30 hours a week for one month. It’s similar to a proposal in Montana.
“This is actually based on a number of, quite frankly, Republican proposals,” Wielechowski said during the debate on Wednesday. “What it does is what it says. If you’re on unemployment as of today—and I picked today because I don’t want people rushing to try to game the system—and you go back to work and you stay at work for four weeks, you get a $1,200 bonus. … I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat, I think it’s a good idea. It’s about getting Alaskans back to work and will help some people in the service industry who are struggling to get people back to work.”
The seeks a middle ground between progressive and conservative legislators who’ve clashed over the underlying causes of the labor shortage throughout the country as businesses try to hire up as the economy reopens from the pandemic. While conservatives have been quick to blame the federally funded $300 per week boost to unemployment for driving people to stay home rather than return to low-wage jobs, economists and pro-worker legislators have warned it’s more complicated and that other issues, such as the lack of affordable child care and living wages, should be taken into consideration.
The Dunleavy administration joined a growing group of Republican states to cut off the federal boost to unemployment three months earlier than provided by the feds. An attempt to reverse that through the budget failed on a 10-10 vote in the Senate.
While the effort to restore the federal unemployment boost failed, the measure to pay the return-to-work bonus passed unanimously.
The budget now heads to negotiations with the House. Because the return-to-work bonus measure was not included in the House version of the budget, it will be one of the many items up for changes but would be likely to survive.
Premium Pay proposal
The House Finance Committee held an overview of the federal American Rescue Plan Act at its Thursday hearing. Though the meeting was largely an update on the evolving federal guidance for how the funds can be used, it did include a mention of the federal legislation’s inclusion of the Premium Pay program. The program would allow the state to create a grant program that businesses could apply for in order to boost pay for employees up to about $13 per hour. There’s no such proposal currently in front of the Legislature, but it could find traction as legislators consider spending plans for the federal funds.