Gov. Jay Inslee today signed legislation providing relief for businesses and workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. SB 5061 will increase minimum unemployment benefits for workers and provide significant tax relief for businesses over the next five years, to support recovery from the economic impacts of COVID shutdowns. The legislation, which was requested by the governor, is a critical piece of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan. It passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers.
COVID-19 has caused deep economic hardship for many workers and businesses. This bill, along with other relief we’ve provided, is another step in helping to mitigate these very difficult impacts.
SB 5061 relieves employers of individual benefit charges for claims that occurred between March 22 and May 30, 2020, the period of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, and caps certain tax rates through 2025. Together, these actions prevent a $1.7 billion spike in unemployment taxes over the next five years, including just over $920 million in rate increases this year. At a time when revenue is down and employers are facing increased costs of business, this bill offers much needed relief.
The legislation also addresses the hardship being faced by workers, putting more money into the pockets of those experiencing unemployment by increasing the minimum benefit starting July 1. This builds on investments the governor made last November when, through budget authorization, he added over $9.5 million to resolve top unemployment claims adjudication issues, hire an additional 60 adjudicators and 32 dual language agents, and increase technology support and materials translation.
Additionally, SB 5061 makes policy updates to ensure that Washington’s unemployment insurance system is more nimble and responsive during public health emergencies. This includes eligibility for individuals at high risk for severe illness and their family members. It also ensures that federal money will not be left on the table when federal support is available for certain benefit programs and makes improvements to the state’s Voluntary Contributions Program which allows employers to buy-down rate increases even further.
Businesses and individuals won’t have to go through any additional processes in order to receive the deductions or increased benefits.
The bill was crafted with support from the Employment Security Department and their Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee, which is composed of representatives from statewide business and labor organizations.
“The hospitality industry has been hit the hardest by this pandemic, and on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of employees and thousands of businesses that have been impacted, we are grateful this is the first bill this session the legislature and the governor have taken action on,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. “Historic relief is on the way for workers and businesses, and SB 5061 sets the groundwork for additional relief efforts underway.”
“SB 5061 recognizes that for many workers, the minimum benefit doesn’t meet the needs of themselves or their families, and by providing a modest increase, the Legislature will put more money in the pockets of the people who need it most,” said Joe Kendo, government affairs director for the Washington State Labor Council. “That means more groceries, fewer evictions and increased financial stability for people who need more than just a bridge to their next job.”
“This legislation is a first step in the right direction and will significantly reduce the increase in unemployment insurance taxes facing Washington employers because of the pandemic,” said Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business. “We know more needs to be done, including a commitment to funding, and look forward to continued collaboration with the governor and legislature to restore lost jobs and begin rebuilding the economy.”
The legislation, which was sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, is the first to pass out of the legislature this session.
“This bill is responding to an urgent need. Employers are seeing increases of 300 to 500 percent and more in their unemployment premiums. SB 5061 provides a bridge for those who need it most,” said Keiser. “And it’s also going to help thousands of low-wage workers in our state who might end up being homeless because they can’t afford to pay the rent or keep the lights on or keep groceries on the table. These are real people. This isn’t just numbers.”
Sen. Curtis King, who co-sponsored SB 5061, joined the governor for the announcement saying “Thank you so much for putting this bill forward … to help our businesses that have been struggling so vitally just to keep their doors open. It’s a great first step. I think there’s more work to do and … I look forward to continuing to work with you as we move forward to help businesses across the state.”
Rep. Mike Sells, who chairs the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, sponsored the companion bill in the House.
“Traditionally, for employment security, when you see a recession on a chart it’s like a bell-shaped curve, when you see this it’s a spike and it really happened almost overnight that we went from 500 calls a day to 26,000 at one point,” said Sells. “There’ll be changes, and some of them will be slow because we’ve never been in this situation before, but it won’t be the last time our state will face a health emergency. So further work will have to be done to be better prepared for the next one.”
Read the full bill here.