Kentucky’s Republican leadership — intent on cutting the cost, regulation and responsibility of business — continues to ignore the realities and needs of the average worker.
The latest example is legislation to reduce the eligibility for and the length of unemployment benefits. And to add insult to injury, the cosponsor of House Bill 252 justifies it by casting aspersions on the unemployed.
“Hopefully it will incentivize people to get off employment and go back to work,” Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, told the Herald-Leader. “Because that’s what we want at the end of the day, is people employed in the state of Kentucky.”
That statement assumes that the 95,000 Kentuckians who worked enough to qualify for unemployment benefits in 2016 would have been satisfied collecting the average $322.48 weekly benefit. Yet obviously they were not, since the state unemployment rate is a low 4.4 percent and the average length of time a worker gets benefits is 18 weeks, compared to the state’s 26-week maximum.
So, let’s not try to sell the idea that the well-being of the worker is this bill’s priority.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce says the legislation is needed to get the state’s 57.6 percent workforce participation rate up to the national average of 62.7 percent. Yet, this same chamber, along with other business and education leaders, has outlined the main workforce challenges as drug addiction and the need for job-training and workplace skills.
And the state takes a one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to addressing those issues.
While there are programs at community colleges to train for available jobs, for example, cutting the length of unemployment benefits makes it almost impossible to get a good start in those programs.
And the best hope for addiction treatment is Medicaid, but the state is getting ready to impose new work requirements and other hurdles to treatment and the chance at a responsible life.
HB 252 also raises the minimum income a person must have earned in their previous job to qualify for benefits, from $750 over the previous three months to $2,000. That rules out a lot of people in part-time jobs at a time when businesses routinely limit hours to avoid paying full-time benefits. Under this bill, they can avoid paying unemployment benefits as well.
Also, the highest unemployment is in Eastern Kentucky, where coal jobs are disappearing and not being adequately replaced, despite recent announcements of new businesses locating there. After decades of job losses, state officials and lawmakers have not figured out ways to connect the workers in the mountains to jobs in other parts of the state, whether through relocation incentives, transportation services or other means.
Right now, it appears the state is sending the message that it will lessen any burden on any company willing to do business here — no matter how challenging or misguided it is for Kentuckians looking for decent work.