‘It’s an Earned Benefit’: Iowa Unions Fight Unemployment Changes

Twitter screenshot from Sen. Claire Celsi

By Nikoel Hytrek

February 8, 2022

Union workers continued to rally against a bill that would overhaul Iowa’s unemployment system during a Tuesday Iowa Senate subcommittee hearing over the issue.

The bill in question, Senate Study Bill 3093, would decrease the duration of unemployment benefits to 16 weeks—down from 26 now—delay the start of benefits by a week, and changes the definition of suitable work when it comes to the work’s weekly wages.

Union members and representatives came to the subcommittee to explain the reasons why these benefits are needed for people in their different industries—whether because of regular periods of unemployment due to seasons changing or the fact that workers have earned the unemployment benefits they receive.

“There’s a lack of understanding about what unemployment generally is,” said Felicia Hilton, who represents the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.

“It’s an earned benefit, you have to be the hardest worker out there to receive it,” she said. “Unemployment [rate] in Iowa is 3.5%, so if you’re looking for work and you’re trying to find a comparable job, it may take you a while because these jobs are full. A lot of people are working. It’s not a quick turnaround.”

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The current unemployment law gives people five weeks to find work with a similar wage. The new law would drastically accelerate how soon people would have to settle for work that pays less than their current average weekly wage.

Patrick Wells, president of the State Conference for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), said this will force people into unsatisfactory work while they wait for new contracts.

“The businesses that are hiring these people that are forced to take work at a lower wage have no idea what they’re in store for,” he said. “Because as soon as I have an opportunity to go back to work at my rate of pay, I’m going for it. I’m going to leave these people high and dry and that’s not good for anyone.”

Construction workers can be suddenly unemployed for a variety of reasons from economic conditions to natural disasters and contagious diseases, Wells said. Those periods often last an unknown period of time and unemployment benefits are meant to be used to withstand those times.

“Our employers justly pay into the trust fund pursuant to federal and state law, with the expectation that it will be used,” Wells said. “They pay a higher construction rate because it is understood in our industry that we do experience sudden or unexpected periods of unemployment based on conditions beyond our control.”

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Wells also said no one’s sitting around collecting checks for a few hundred dollars when they could make significantly more while also earning benefits at work. The people on unemployment need it, he said.

“During the last recession, my members had no work available in the state or in the country to go to,” Wells said. “We experienced periods of unemployment that lasted much longer than 16 weeks. If we’d had this bill in place at that time, it would have devastated us. I don’t know how we would have made it through.”

Sen. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines) was the only legislator to speak against the bill. Sens. Jason Schultz (R- Schleswig) and Waylon Brown (R-Osage) said they would pass the bill along with some changes.

Petersen said unemployment benefits aren’t only for the jobless individuals but for their families and communities, too. Because if someone loses their job and can no longer pay for child care, that’s another income impacted by another person’s job loss.

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“These are the reasons why we have unemployment insurance,” she said. “We know that first week is crucial to making sure that families don’t fall behind in everything that they depend on. I mean, this bill is heartless.”

“I’m tired of the extremism that’s going after Iowans who are hardworking people, trying to set a narrative that somebody who’s lost their job is somehow lazy—we know Iowans aren’t lazy,” Petersen continued. “This is wrong-headed and if this is the governor’s example about what we should be doing to improve workforce, she might need to go on a 99-county tour again and actually go talk to real Iowans about what they’re facing every day.”


Nikoel Hytrek

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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