FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House voted Thursday to revamp rules for unemployment benefits, capping an impassioned debate over the bill's impact on laid-off workers and the state's economy.
The sweeping measure — backed by a prominent business group and opposed by a key labor organization — won House passage on a 57-37 vote, hours after it was reviewed in committee. The fast-track vote sent the bill to the Senate. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
Key parts of the bill would increase work-search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits and tie the length of time recipients get benefits to the unemployment rate. That provision could cut the number of benefit weeks by more than half in times of low jobless rates.
Supporters, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said it represents an important step toward improving the state's chronic workforce shortages as businesses struggle to fill jobs.
“We can’t become known as a state that is short on workers," Kentucky Chamber executive Kate Shanks told a House committee Thursday. "This is a huge issue for us to tackle.”
Opponents said the stricter rules would increase hardships for many laid-off workers, forcing them to accept lower-wage jobs as they face a quicker cutoff of benefits.
“What rationale can there be for enacting a law that will harm Kentuckians already hanging by a thread?” Dale Raines, with the Kentucky Council of Churches, said during the committee hearing.
The bill struck a nerve with eastern Kentucky lawmakers, who said the stricter rules would hurt their constituents struggling to find work in a region where many coalfield jobs have vanished.
“For the people of my district, for the people of my region, let me beg of you not to do this,” Republican Rep. John Blanton said during the hourslong House debate.
Blanton implored his colleagues to focus on policies to promote job growth in areas like his that struggle with chronically high unemployment.
“All I’m asking for is not a handout, a hand up," he said. "We have a right to have jobs in our region, the same as everywhere else.”
Blanton tried to revise the bill to retain the state's current 26 weeks of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits and reduce the work-search requirements to reflect more limited job opportunities in areas like his. His amendment was defeated.
Opponents warned the bill would reduce the maximum number of weeks to between 12 and 24.
Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton, also from eastern Kentucky, warned that the reduced access to benefits would lead to more population losses in the region.
“This bill, however well intentioned, will cause more people to move away from our counties to go find work when their unemployment runs out,” Hatton said. “That's the last thing on earth that we need right now.”
The bill's supporters pointed to the need to improve Kentucky's workforce participation rate, saying the state needs more workers paying taxes to meet its many long-term financial needs. And they noted that the unemployment insurance system is supported by businesses.
“It's a promise that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, that we will be there to cover you 'til you find another job,” said Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt. “It's not a welfare system. It's not meant to last forever.”
Another leading opponent of the bill, state AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan, warned that the proposed changes in the bill could delay overhauling Kentucky’s outdated technology for processing jobless claims.
Like other states, Kentucky was overwhelmed by record waves of claims for jobless assistance caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Tens of thousands of Kentuckians found themselves in limbo for months as they waited for their jobless claims to be processed.
The measure also would create a method to report benefit recipients who fail to show up for job interviews or turn down job offers. It also offers inducements through an extra five weeks of benefits for laid-off workers participating in job training or other education programs.
The legislation is House Bill 4.