‘A middle finger for hard-working Iowans’: Iowa House and Senate approve bill cutting unemployment benefits – Tips & Results

Unemployment documents from the Iowa Workforce Development Office. — Emma McClatchey/Small Village

On Wednesday, the Iowa House of Representatives and the Iowa Senate both passed versions of a bill that would cut unemployment benefits and force Iowa unemployed people to take jobs that pay less than their previous jobs, faster than current law is doing. The bills passed both chambers, with only Republicans voting in favor of them.

Cutting benefits for unemployed Iowans was one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ top priorities for this year’s legislative session. In his “Condition of the State” speech in January, Reynolds boasted of “record low unemployment” before taking advantage of improved federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks during the pandemic had turned “the safety net” into “a hammock.”

“[I]It’s a growing problem, and it’s not just an economic one,” she said.

“There is dignity in work; it gives us meaning and purpose. So when it is degraded, when idleness is rewarded with increased unemployment and stimulus checks, when work begins to seem optional rather than essential, then society begins to deteriorate.”

“I worry that we’re going to get to that point.”

The governor, who ended enhanced federal unemployment benefits at the first opportunity in June 2021, went on to describe an imaginary carpenter working alone “in the freezing cold.” The imaginary carpenter “needs help,” Reynolds said, but can’t hire help because “too many are at home and living on his taxpayer dollars. This has been the case for almost two years now.”

The governor used her made-up scenario of the lonely carpenter working in the cold as a prelude to an announcement: She wants lawmakers to almost halve the time someone can claim unemployment benefits, from six months to three and a half months.

Reynolds said her imaginary carpenter “has faith in Iowa,” so lawmakers should “show him Iowa cares” by cutting unemployment benefits.

The governor called the 26 weeks that Iowans can currently claim unemployment benefits — 39 weeks if a worker loses their job because the business or factory they worked at shuts down — “more time than necessary.”

“I’m going to introduce a bill that will bring benefits down to 16 weeks — about four months — and make sure those who collect unemployment can’t turn down suitable jobs while they’re living off taxpayers’ money,” Reynolds said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the state’s 2022 condition speech on Tuesday, Jan. 11.

HF 2355, both the version passed by the House of Representatives and the amended version passed by the Senate, does this. It also cuts unemployment benefits from 39 weeks to 26 weeks for those unemployed due to a shop or factory closure.

The bill also requires people to take job offers that pay less than their previous jobs after a week of receiving unemployment benefits. Currently, the law does not require Iowans to take lower-paying jobs until the sixth week of unemployment benefits.

The Republicans pushing HF 2355 Wednesday did not use the words “hammock” or “idleness” and did not invoke imaginary carpenters. Instead, the bill’s floor manager, Republican Rep. Michael Bousselot of Ankeny, said it was about addressing the state’s labor shortages, improving Iowa’s unemployment system and bolstering the trust fund that delivers its benefits.

“It’s about filling vacant key positions. It’s about ensuring that a vital benefit for unemployed Iowans remains available to unemployed Iowans,” Bousselot said during the four-hour debate on the bill in the House of Representatives. “As amended, this would give Iowa Workforce Development and our unemployment system a modern mission focused on re-employment, new skills and new skills so our workers can fill the modern jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Democratic Rep. Chris Hall of Sioux City immediately denied these claims.

“In my opinion, that’s the most polite and gentlest way to tell the public they’re about to be screwed,” Hall said. “Is the solvency of the unemployment fund at risk? No. And nobody believes the governor that such a garbage policy will have positive economic effects. That will not counteract the shortage of skilled workers.”

As the Des Moines Register pointed out that the trust fund for the unemployed is larger now than it was at the start of the pandemic, according to the latest state report. As of March 1, the fund was worth $1.37 billion.

Other Democrats who opposed the bill were just as outspoken as Hall.

“This legislation before us today is a middle finger for hard-working Iowans,” Rep. Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids said during the debate.

“Why do we punish people who get fired through no fault of their own and are looking for work?” asked House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights. “By cutting her off and thinking that’ll get her back to work?”

“That’s short-sighted, that’s mean, and that’s wrong.”

HF 2355 passed house 58-37. Two Republicans voted against, along with all House Democrats.

The Senate amended HF 2355 to delay the start of unemployment benefits by a week. This delay is necessary to ensure jobless claims are not fraudulent, according to bill floor manager Senator Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig.

“I would ask at what point is there enough fraud and at what point can we not step in and try to limit this fraud to the smallest possible level?” Schultz asked his fellow senators. “The one-week wait would be enough for that.”

The amended law passed the Senate 30-20. All House Democrats and two Republicans voted against.

Senate Vote on HF 2355, March 23, 2022

The two versions of the bill must be reconciled before HF 2355 can be sent to the governor for signature.

Unions are firmly opposed to the bill, and ironically, given Reynolds’ attempt to justify the benefit cuts with a story about an imaginary carpenter, construction unions have been particularly vocal. Their members are often dependent on unemployment benefits when construction projects are halted due to weather-related circumstances.

Opposition to the bill is not limited to union members, according to a poll released by Iowa to register last week. 53 percent of respondents opposed the cuts, while only 38 percent supported them.

If Reynolds signs the bill, Iowa will be one of only five states to grant less than 20 weeks of unemployment benefits.

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