OPINION: State Legislature must vote down HB 5276

By Joshua Sword, President of the West Virginia AFL-CIO

As the President of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, my primary objective is to stand up for the rights and well-being of workers across our state. The recent announcement by the Cleveland-Cliffs plant in Weirton of their plan to lay off 1,000 workers in April is a devastating blow to our community, our economy, and the very fabric of our society. That the West Virginia legislature could even consider cutting unemployment insurance at a time like this is beyond misguided – but that’s just what they’re doing in HB 5276. This bill seeks to lower the cap on weekly payments and cut the number of weeks of eligibility to receive unemployment benefits. As Larry Ray, District 8 Director for the United Steelworkers said:

“It is simply unimaginable that state lawmakers would consider legislation to reduce the amount of unemployment benefits workers could qualify for, especially considering the devastating news that 1,000 West Virginia workers at Cleveland-Cliffs in Weirton are losing their jobs on top of recent plant and mine closures elsewhere in West Virginia.  Legislators should be seeking to help rather than hurt these workers and their families.”

Unemployment insurance is not a handout; it is a lifeline. It is a benefit that workers have earned, safeguarding them against the very situation we are facing now—a sudden, massive job loss due to circumstances far beyond their control. To cut this vital support at a time like this is unfathomable to me. It leaves our fellow West Virginians without a crucial buffer that helps them keep their homes, feed their families, and maintain a semblance of normalcy as they search for new employment.

The notion that unemployment insurance is somehow an optional benefit that can be adjusted without real consequences is a dangerous misconception. This insurance is part of a social contract, a recognition that the economy’s ebbs and flows should not leave workers destitute. It acknowledges that employment is not just about the immediate job at hand but is tied to broader economic health and stability. When workers lose their jobs through no fault of their own, as is the case with the impending layoffs at Cleveland-Cliffs in Weirton, the unemployment insurance they have paid into becomes their rightful due.

The passage of HB 5276 will not only undermine the financial security of those directly affected by the layoffs but also poses a risk to the local economy as well. Unemployment benefits serve as an economic stabilizer; they are spent quickly on essentials, flowing back into local businesses, and help to sustain the community during tough times. Reducing these benefits means reducing this economic activity, potentially leading to further job losses and a deeper economic downturn. 

Moreover, the timing could not be worse. The layoffs announced by Cleveland-Cliffs are a significant blow to our state’s economy and the well-being of many West Virginian families. These are not just numbers; they are our neighbors, friends, and family members facing an uncertain future. As Senator Ryan Weld noted shortly after the announced layoffs “people may need to seek support from Workforce West Virginia,” adding that the agency “will need to help laid off workers navigate the unemployment benefits process and search for new jobs.”  Now is the time for solidarity and support, not for cutting the very programs designed to offer a safety net.

This is a moment for our legislature to stand with West Virginia workers. It is a time to reinforce, not weaken, the systems that protect us all in times of economic hardship. I urge our legislators to consider the broader impact of their decisions, to recognize the human cost of cutting unemployment insurance, and to remember that these benefits are not just budget line items but lifelines for real people.

Furthermore, I call upon our state’s leaders to invest in creating a resilient, diversified economy that can offer more stability and opportunities for all West Virginians. We must look beyond the immediate crisis and lay the groundwork for a future where such devastating layoffs are less likely to occur. This includes investing in education, training, and infrastructure that can attract and sustain a wide range of industries.  This includes a competitive wage for our teachers, school service personnel, corrections officers, and other state workers.  

The proposed cuts to unemployment insurance come at the worst possible time for West Virginia workers. They undermine the very principle of mutual support and protection that is at the heart of the unemployment insurance system. As we face the fallout from the Cleveland-Cliffs layoffs, I implore our legislature to act in the best interest of our workers and our state. Failure to do so will simply compound one tragedy with another by stripping away the safety net that so many are about to rely on. Now is the time to show true leadership by supporting those in need and working towards a more stable and prosperous future for all West Virginians.

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