CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — People in West Virginia would be permitted to collect unemployment benefits for fewer weeks and be required do more to prove they are searching for work to remain benefit-eligible under a bill passed Monday by the state Senate.
The proposed legislation would reduce the maximum time an unemployed person could collect benefits from 26 weeks to a maximum of 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the state unemployment rate. It also would mandate that people collecting the benefits complete at least four “work search activities” a week.
Currently, state law says people can receive benefits if they are “doing that which a reasonably prudent person in his or her circumstances would do in seeking work." It doesn't set specific parameters.
Examples of qualifying work search activities defined in the bill include completing job applications, interviewing for a job or attending job fairs and other networking events.
During debate on the bill Monday, Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo of Marion County said he supports efforts to get rid of fraudulent claims within the unemployment system. He said people gaming the system should be "dealt with swiftly and they should be prosecuted.”
But Caputo, a retired coal miner and former district vice president for the United Mine Workers of America, said he doesn't support shortening the time frame in which people can receive benefits.
“When it comes to workers, it seems like it’s a constant beat down," he said. "I just don’t get it, why we had to single out the men and women that make West Virginia go on their toughest times and reduce the amount of time they can collect those benefits."
Caputo, one of three Democrats in the 34-member Senate, said he expected to be one of only a few members to vote against advancing the bill.
“I got to speak my mind when I see what I believe injustice is occurring,” he said.
Republican Sen. Charles Clements of Wetzel County asked if there was anything in the bill that would stop lawmakers from extending unemployment benefits in the future — during a recession, for example.
“You feel there’s a protection in this bill, that if unemployment gets too high for too long, we can come back and undo what what this bill did as far as length of term?" he asked Republican Sen. Jack Woodrum, who was presenting the bill to lawmakers.
“I agree, it would allow us to come back and make those corrections,” Woodrum said.
The bill would index benefits to the state average unemployment rate. If the unemployment rate is below 5.5%, benefits would be limited to a maximum duration of 12 weeks. For each .5% increase in the unemployment rate, the benefit duration would extend an additional week, up to a total maximum duration of 20 weeks.
Additionally, the bill would require the commissioner in charge of the state unemployment insurance program to verify the identity of applicants and reviews suspicious claims. It aims to incentivize people to go back to work by allowing residents to accept part-time jobs without seeing a reduction in benefits. Their part-time wages must be less than their weekly benefit rate.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate was 4.1% in November and December, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and WorkForce West Virginia, the state agency that oversees the West Virginia’s unemployment insurance program.
Similar legislation passed the Senate last year, but died in the House. This year’s bill passed 27 to 5, and will now head to the House of Delegates for consideration.