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Proposed reductions in Iowa unemployment benefits

DES MOINES — Republicans in the legislature are considering changes they say will ensure the taxes businesses pay into the state’s unemployment trust fund don’t go up. The bill would impose a one-week waiting period before workers would be eligible to receive unemployment.

During a news conference organized by the Iowa Federation of Labor, Kelli Harrison, a UAW member from Marshalltown, said Iowa manufacturing plants are notorious for short-term layoffs.

“Do we really want to go after these workers? Do we want to take a week’s worth of pay because they were laid off through no fault of their own during a time when unemployment funds are not depleted?” she asked.

Carrie Duncan, a union member at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, said if the bill were law today, about 90 workers at the plant just laid off for a week would be ineligible for unemployment.

“These are my coworkers, some that have family at home to financially support that are counting on that 40-hour paycheck, as the bills will continue to come regardless,” she said.

Republican lawmakers are also considering changes for workers laid off by companies that go out of business, limiting unemployment benefits to a maximum of 26 rather than 39 weeks. Scott Punteney of Council Bluffs, president of the Western Iowa Labor Federation, was among 300 workers laid off due to a plant closure in 2014.

“I was very lucky. I was the fortunate one. I was able to transition into a new line of work…Many of my coworkers were not,” he said. “…These benefits, these extra 13 weeks to some of my friends and co-workers were life saving. They needed that money to survive, to put food on the table, to put a roof over their head.”

The bill calls for ending jobless benefits for someone who fails to accept a job that pays less than the one they lost. Business groups say Governor Reynolds used federal CARES Act money to cover skyrocketing unemployment claims during the pandemic, but that’s a lifeline that may not be available in the next economic downturn and the bill will help shield Iowa businesses from significant tax increases to cover unemployment benefits.

Republicans on the House Labor Committee approved the bill after a nearly six hour meeting this week and Democrats vow to an even longer debate if the bill comes up for a vote on the House floor.

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