“Do we really have to do this now, during a pandemic?”
That was a question repeatedly asked during a roundtable with Iowa union members Tuesday morning, following an earlier, contentious debate in the Iowa House Labor Committee which advanced a bill that cuts unemployment insurance benefits.
The legislation, which has been proposed but not signed during previous sessions, would considerably change the state’s unemployment benefits by requiring workers to wait a week before receiving unemployment pay, cutting benefits paid to workers with multiple dependents and if a business closes, slashing worker unemployment by 13 weeks.
“Now is not the time to be cutting unemployment benefits period. But especially during a global health pandemic,” said Iowa Federation of Labor President Charlie Wishman at the virtual roundtable.
“Lost in all of the talk about tax tables and how this state can apparently continue to line the pockets of big business, is the human impact that being on unemployment brings.”
Carrie Duncan, a union member and production operator at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, said she has before experienced plant closures and has needed to seek unemployment benefits.
Around 85-90 operators needed to file for one week of unemployment last week due to an unexpected issue that arose on the line, she said.
“These are my coworkers. Some who have families at home to financially support,” she said. “The bills will continue to come regardless, and the state … wants to impose further duress by delaying them receiving an income due to a ten-day waiting period on unemployment compensation.”
Iowans filed record numbers of unemployment claims during the start of the pandemic in March and April of 2020. Businesses did not see their unemployment tax rates increase, however, because the Governor put a significant amount of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security money into the fund.
Kelli Harrison, a United Auto Workers member, asked at the roundtable why this legislation was moving through when unemployment funds are not unhealthy.
“This has been a very trying year for all of us during COVID-19 … Many UAW members continued to work during the pandemic because they were considered essential workers,” she said. “Do we really want to go after these workers? Do we really want to take a week’s worth of pay because they were laid off at no fault of their own, during a time when unemployment funds are not depleted?”
The bill would also call for workers to accept jobs with lower-paying wages than the ones they were laid off from to move off benefits faster.
“I had brothers and sisters at a plant that, when they found out their plant was closing, people committed suicide. This is really personal to people. This is life-changing. And now you want to cut 13 weeks out of funds that are available?” Harrison said.
by Isabella Murray
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