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Iowa House changes would constrict unemployment benefits

(File photo) The House Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/Th
(File photo) The House Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Legislation lawmakers have sidelined in previous years appeared headed to approval by the House Labor Committee on Monday night despite Democratic arguments against changes reducing benefits to unemployed Iowans.

House Study Bill 203 would make significant changes for Iowa’s unemployment benefits. The changes have been proposed, but not adopted in previous sessions. It would require workers to wait a week for unemployment benefits, reduce the benefit amount paid to workers with multiple dependents and cut worker benefits by 13 weeks if a business closes.

“Iowa basically has a good system,” Chairman Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, told the committee. “These are not major changes. They’re fairly small.”

Not for workers — many of them in low-wage jobs — who rely on the state’s unemployment trust fund for benefits when they are out of work, generally through no fault of their own, committee Democrats countered.

Iowa, in some ways, is an outlier, Deyoe said. It neighboring states and all but eight states have a one-week waiting period before a worker receives unemployment benefits. Only 13 states have provisions addressing the number of dependents. Iowa’s provision was put into the unemployment benefits program when there were not as many state and federal safety net programs, Deyoe said.

He also had concerns about the possibility of abuse because Iowa Workforce Development doesn’t have the time and staff to conduct checks.

Although Deyoe said the pandemic has exposed some weakness in the trust fund, Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, pointed out the governor used $499 million of federal CARES Act money to solidify the unemployment trust fund.

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“It’s one of the healthiest trust funds in the country,” she said, adding that IWD told her it is unlikely that employers would be subject to higher unemployment tax rates next year.

Running-Marquardt called it “shameful” to consider the bill in the midst of a pandemic that has thrown people out of work and increased the risks for many who have showed up for to do essential work.

Many COVID-19 deaths have been among Iowa workers who showed up for their jobs despite fears about the virus and, in some cases, contracted COVID-19 at the workplace.

“And you’re going to nickel and dime them when they are living paycheck to paycheck?” she said,” Running-Marquardt said. “It’s shameful. It’s immoral.”

Labor groups will host a news conference to address HSB 203 as well as Senate Study Bill 1172, a companion bill in the Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee.

Kelli Harrison, of the United Auto Workers, Carrie Duncan of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and Scott Punteney of the Iowa Labor Federation are scheduled to address the “immoral” legislation, focused on punishing Iowa working families,” in a virtual news conference at 10 a.m. Feb. 23 at https://aflcio.zoom.us/j/85977132817?pwd=VDJuUDFrdEtrOWNuV3N0YnlsZ1YvZz09.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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