Missouri Senate Adds Injury to Insult In Move to Cut Unemployment Insurance

Statement of Christine Owens, executive director, National Employment Law Project:

The National Employment Law Project is dismayed by the 28-5 vote that just occurred in the Missouri State Senate that brings the state a step closer to making unprecedented cuts in its unemployment insurance program, reducing state-level coverage from 26 maximum weeks to just 20 weeks and curtailing federal unemployment  benefits as well -- even though unemployment in the state has been 9.4 percent or higher for almost two years.

State senators agreed to the deep cuts last Thursday in exchange for allowing long-term unemployed workers in Missouri to continue receiving federally funded Extended Benefits.  But the deal is a bad one all around.  If the Senate bill passes the House and is signed into law by the governor, unemployed Missourians filing new claims would not only lose 6 weeks of coverage under the state program but would also lose up to 17 additional weeks of federal unemployment benefits available under current law.  

Last week, state senate leaders allowed four senators to continue blocking a bill to allow eligible unemployed workers to continue receiving federal Extended Benefits.  That bill had already passed the Missouri House by a vote of 123 to 14 more than two months earlier.  Yet, it was blocked by four state senators who objected to the use of federal funds to pay for these benefits in an apparent protest of federal spending.  As a result, the Extended Benefits program lapsed in Missouri on April 2nd, causing the state to cut off payments to nearly 10,000 currently unemployed Missouri workers.  In response, Missouri’s unemployed workers and their families and supporters have issued tens of thousands of emails, fax messages, and phone calls, urging Senate leaders to end the filibuster and stop blocking the Extended Benefits bill.

But Senate leaders not only failed to do that, they also made two extremely harmful and unnecessary changes to the bill.  One was to allow an amendment to reduce the maximum weeks of benefits under the permanent state unemployment insurance (UI) program from the national standard of 26 weeks to just 20 weeks. The second was a pledge to cut $250 million in authorized federal funds from the $538 million in appropriations bill HB 18—a move that would undermine economic recovery in Missouri, wipe out needed infrastructure investments, and result in more job losses in a state still suffering from a 9.4-percent unemployment rate.

If enacted, these measures, taken together, will result in fewer jobs, more job losses, and less unemployment insurance  for more than 280,000 of Missouri’s currently unemployed workers.  Permanently reducing state UI weeks had not been proposed before last week, and its impact on workers and Missouri’s economy was never considered.  Under the cover of restoring the Extended Benefits it had allowed to lapse, the Missouri Senate has acted to shred the very UI safety net it claims to support.  The Extended Benefits program is temporary and slated to expire at the end of the year, while the six-week cut in state benefits would be a permanent reduction in benefits for all future Missouri workers who lose their jobs.

The unemployment rate in Missouri is currently 9.4 percent and has not been below that level since May 2009.  With a higher unemployment rate than nearly all of its neighbors, Missouri’s maximum weekly unemployment benefit payment of $320 is less than any of those neighboring states.  According to the most recent quarterly statistics, Missouri’s average weekly benefit payment of $244 ranked 44th of the 53 UI jurisdictions, and was $55 per week less than the U.S. average.  And Missouri’s UI eligibility already is among the strictest in the country, with only 24 out of 100 jobless workers receiving any benefits in the last quarter of 2010.

The Missouri Senate’s moves to cut both state and federal weeks of unemployment insurance eligibility will severely weaken what is already an inadequate state system.  And massive cuts to needed infrastructure and other investments in Missouri’s economy will only serve to thwart economic recovery and worsen an already weak job market in the state.

Senate leaders allowed four state senators to hold unemployed Missourians’ benefits hostage for an agenda that harms Missouri workers and their families and undermines the Missouri economy.  The wrong-headed and unnecessary cuts to benefit weeks in Missouri will do nothing to benefit taxpayers and will only result in Missouri’s unemployed having far less economic protection than unemployed workers in the rest of the country.

The National Employment Law Project calls on the Missouri House to reject the Senate’s changes to the unemployment bill (HB 163).  The Missouri House should insist that the Senate pass the Extended Benefits renewal legislation it had before it for the past two months without the amendment to permanently cut the maximum regular state UI benefit weeks—and do so without further delay so that the Extended Benefit payments can be restored promptly.  Should the legislature fail to do so, NELP urges Governor Jay Nixon to veto the measure and demand a clean bill to continued Extended Benefits be passed.


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