Reynolds’ Unemployment Reform Bill Punishes Workers, Labor Leaders Warn

Iowa unions came out swinging against a new proposal from Gov. Kim Reynolds that would substantially alter unemployment benefits some argue to the detriment of seasonal and low-wage workers.

A few changes HF 631 would bring to unemployment include:

  • Creating a one-week waiting period before benefits start
  • Cutting unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 16 weeks
  • Enabling appeals directly to the district court rather the Iowa Employment Appeal Board
  • And amending the misconduct section that provides guidelines for claims to be denied

During a Tuesday Iowa House subcommittee meeting on the measure, Felicia Hilton, a lobbyist for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, said her organization takes exception to multiple parts of HF 631. A specific item she challenged was the expanded misconduct section, which she said included vague language.

“It seems subjective and not really clear what it would be to say something against your employer or all these different aspects,” Hilton said. “It’s not clear if that’s in the workplace or if it’s outside of the workplace? Like what are those parameters?”

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Hilton also said it would basically erase rulings from administrative law judges, who handle cases between private citizens and government agencies.

Since last year, Reynolds has made promises to change unemployment. She blamed the program for worker shortages despite other factors keeping people out of the workforce such as child care issues, low wages, the pandemic, and more. Reynolds even called the program a hammock rather than a safety social net during her January Condition of the State address.

“This is an earned benefit—this is not a safety net—you can’t apply for unemployment if you haven’t worked and earned the unemployment,” Hilton said. “It is an earned benefit; it isn’t something someone is handing out to people.”

To qualify for unemployment under Iowa’s existing standard, a person had to work 15-18 months before they lost their job through no fault of their own while also earning what’s considered a minimum amount of wages.

Although neither her name nor office is attached to HF 631, Molly Severn, a lobbyist for Reynolds’ office, confirmed the legislation came from the governor during Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting.

Severn said this is a high priority for Reynolds.

“These benefits continue to serve an important purpose for individuals unexpectedly out of work, but they are not intended to provide long-term support especially amidst a post-pandemic workforce shortage,” Severn said. “Our state cannot afford to keep employable Iowans on the sideline for an extended amount of time.”

In December, Iowa’s labor participation rate was 66.9% and 57,900 Iowans collected unemployment benefits. According to Indeed, there are more than 80,000 job openings in Iowa.

Karl Schilling, a lobbyist for Iowa United Professionals, which represents the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers union, said the new bill does nothing to solve Iowa’s worker shortage. He offered a few solutions.

“We could be more welcoming to immigrants, we could replace the minimum wage with a living wage, we could bolster education so that we could be number one again in the country like it was when I went to high school,” he said.

“The problem is we don’t want to do them. And instead, we’re doing this. It’s like Mark Twain said, ‘It’s like giving a dead man a haircut, it doesn’t do any good, you just feel better for the effort.’”


by Ty Rushing

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