Commentary by: TIM BURGA
A bill that supporters say would “reform” Ohio’s unemployment compensation system is moving through the General Assembly. The measure is horribly misconceived; if it becomes law, it will undermine the intended function of the entire system.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), unfairly places the burden of solvency for the unemployment compensation system on the backs of workers. It irresponsibly slashes benefits, while Ohio employers will pay less overall into the system.
The bill does not require any concession from employers. The solvency problem emerged because employers have paid far too little into the system for far too long.
To fund jobless benefits, Ohio employers pay a percentage of the first $9,000 a worker earns into the system. That so-called taxable wage base has not changed for 20 years. Nationally, the average employer is required to contribute to the unemployment compensation system on the first $13,400 of wages — one-third more than in Ohio.
Instead of finding common ground that would preserve a strong safety net for unemployed workers, this bill would slash the number of benefit weeks from the current 26 to as few as 12. It would reduce benefits for workers with dependents.
Unemployment benefits help working people feed their children, stay in their homes, and pay regular bills. This “reform” would undermine workers’ ability to meet these needs. Statistics show that the reduced benefits will hurt unemployed workers and their families, because unemployment typically lasts longer than the bill would provide for.
During the Great Recession, unemployment benefits supported not only families but also our state economy, by keeping the high number of jobless Ohioans participating in the economy. Under the bill before the legislature, the reduced benefits would cripple families’ ability to take part in local economic activity, exacerbating the downward spiral of any future recession.
Changes to the unemployment compensation system have historically been negotiated by labor and business in Ohio. This bill does not do that. In fact, it would eliminate the advisory council that has advocated balanced approaches to system solvency in the past. The bill will not just immediately harm working people, but also will permanently remove our voice from the process.
Lack of political will and legislative inaction have brought on the solvency problem in Ohio’s unemployment compensation system. Lawmakers should look for a solution that demands sacrifice by all parties involved.
Instead, the bill would widen the imbalance of sacrifice between working people and employers. Language that disqualifies workers who are not employed year-round from benefits will hurt people in the construction trades. No other state has such a stringent requirement.
Other provisions, such as the imposition of waiting periods for benefits, the subtraction of Social Security payments from unemployment compensation, and other requirements designed to prevent workers from qualifying for benefits put even more of the responsibility for solvency on working people, while the bill does not require employers to do more to achieve balance.
The bill does not address the real problems with Ohio’s unemployment compensation system, but rather imposes new burdens on the people the system was designed to help. The system needs to be fixed, but this proposal does not do that. I urge lawmakers to go back to the drawing board and do what’s right by all Ohioans — workers and employers alike.
Tim Burga is president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.