Senate votes to reduce unemployment benefits week after major state layoffs

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

A week after two major in-state employers closed, the West Virginia Senate passed an amended bill to reduce unemployment benefits for citizens who are out of work. 

Two bills were originally proposed. SB840 (sponsored by Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam) proposed achieving the unemployment cut by reducing the maximum weeks of eligibility from 26 weeks to 12 weeks and lowering the amount of unemployment compensation workers receive. However, that bill was shelved at the last minute.

Meanwhile, another bill reducing unemployment advanced on Wednesday. SB841 (sponsored by Sen. Jack David Woodrum) was amended and approved by a vote of 24-7 in the Senate. According to Senator Eric Nelson (R-Kanawha) who presented the bill, this version of the bill would provide “predictability and stability” to both workers and employers. 

The provisions of the bill include reducing the number of eligible weeks to 24 and lowering the amount of unemployment benefits the longer a person goes without a job. 

Currently, workers may receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment paid at 66.6% of the average weekly wage in West Virginia. 

Under the bill passed by the Senate, workers would be paid at 70% of the average wage for the first four weeks. As the weeks pass, the benefits would decrease to 45% before being eliminated at 24 weeks. During that time of unemployment, workers may take part-time work and still receive benefits, though they would seem to be reduced.  

In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee last week, Workforce WV Director Scott Adkins testified that the unemployment trust fund (which is used to pay claims) has a balance of $387,657,779.05.

“I don’t want to convey that the trust fund’s in dire straits,” Adkins said. “It’s not. It’s in pretty good shape. But a major recession coming down the pike could have a pretty significant impact on the trust fund.”

He further clarified that projections by John Deskins, WVU Chambers College of Business & Economics, show that the fund could dry up in about two years if the unemployment rate stayed at 10%. If we were to face a severe recession, the fund could be depleted in 18 months, Chambers told Workforce. 

Nelson echoed those comments on the flood, saying, “Unemployment benefits keep increasing and trust fund reserves are being depleted. We’re facing a situation where we’d be forced to increase taxes on employers paying into the fund.”

Senator Mike Caputo (D-Marion) spoke in opposition to the bill at 6:12pm, saying, “We got an amendment put in the system at 5:36pm while we were listening to the budget bill. We need to slow this train down. We can’t get this wrong. It’s too important to too many people.”

Today, the unemployment rate is 4.3% and there are 50,000 jobs available across West Virginia. Last month, 9,801 citizens made unemployment claims. Approximately 80% of the claims were made by males.

A bipartisan group of senators–Caputo, Chapman, Grady, Hamilton, Stover, Stuart, and Weld–voted against the unemployment cuts. 

Sen. Jack David Woodrum, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment. 

Stay tuned to RealWV for updates as SB841 now heads to the House of Delegates where it can be passed, changed, or ignored in the final ten days of the legislative session.

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